Politics & Policy

Can a Democrat Win in Virginia’s Fifth District?

Virignia Congressional candidate Leslie Cockburn (Campaign ad image/YouTube)
Democrats hoping to capitalize on changing demographics and anti-Trump sentiment would do well to watch their tone.

I live in Fauquier County, Va. Some years ago, yellow license plates with the Gadsden flag, featuring a coiled snake and the words “Don’t tread on me,” began popping up on pickup trucks all over this county. Personally, I never viewed the snake as a threat. On the contrary, it seemed to be put there on my behalf. Many other county residents continue to feel the same way.

Most of Fauquier, including the county seat of Warrenton, lies within Virginia’s fifth congressional district, viewed by analysts as potentially competitive in the upcoming November midterm elections.  The fifth stretches all the way from Fauquier to the North Carolina border. It includes the liberal bastion of Charlottesville but is otherwise dominated by rural and small-town Piedmont counties. Republican Tom Garrett won the district handily in 2016, but his retirement leaves Virginia’s fifth an open seat, and Democrats see an opportunity here for a pickup.

Within living memory, Fauquier was a very sleepy, overwhelmingly rural southern county that was racially segregated and voted rock-solid Democratic at the congressional level. Beginning in the 1970s, in the wake of desegregation, the population almost tripled, powered by exurban development, middle-class growth, and the movement of new families into the county from well beyond Virginia. A great many residents now commute to the Washington, D.C., area for work. At the same time, however, and unlike much of Northern Virginia, Fauquier retains a distinctly southern small-town feel. If you ask for sweet tea at a local diner, the wait staff will know what you mean. This combination of qualities has tended to favor Republican candidates. But local Democrats hope that these long-term demographic changes may now begin to advantage their party. If Fauquier starts to look more like neighboring counties such as Loudon and Prince William, they think they’ll have a good chance.

The opposing candidates for Congress here are Republican Denver Riggleman and Democrat Leslie Cockburn. Riggleman is a small-business owner and Air Force veteran who has emphasized mainstream conservative policy concerns regarding property rights, taxes, the Second Amendment, migrant-visa reform, excess government regulation, and U.S. support for Israel. Cockburn is a muckraking journalist with a fondness for left-wing clichés regarding American politics and foreign policy. Her best-known contribution to the campaign prior to September was to tweet about Bigfoot and to falsely suggest that her opponent had white-supremacist sympathies. In other words, she’s not a great fit for rural Virginia. But of course Donald Trump energizes his opponents, and Democrats hope that with high turnout from African Americans, progressives, working women, and college-educated moderates, the fifth district may be caught up in a national blue wave this November.

Can a Democrat like Cockburn win this county and this district on an anti-Trump platform?

Talking with Fauquier County residents over the past couple of years, I find three distinct points of view regarding Donald Trump. Call them Trump Believers, Wary Republicans, and the Resistance.

The Resistance encompasses a significant minority of Fauquier residents. These are voters who despise virtually everything about the Trump administration, starting with the president. They are continually agitated by Trump’s very existence, and are ready to let you know it. Turnout will not be a problem for this group, which is mainly composed of liberal Democrats.

At the other end of the spectrum, Trump Believers — a significant minority here as well in Fauquier County — enthusiastically support Donald Trump in every respect. For them, he can do no wrong. This is a remarkable phenomenon. The only comparable recent equivalent I can think of is the devotion of some voters to Barack Obama. Trump Believers are Republicans but are sometimes less enthusiastic about GOP candidates down the ballot.

The most interesting group in Fauquier, however, and a pivotal one, is that of Wary Republicans. These Wary Republicans have mixed feelings about Trump. They view him as having certain undeniable strengths but laugh at his foibles and wince at his more outrageous statements. For the most part, they like the policies pursued by this administration, are conservative, and have no particular desire to support a liberal alternative. Still, they are clearly tired of the melodrama. One question this autumn is whether they will turn out in sufficient numbers to put Riggleman over the top.

The demographic profile of Wary Republicans in this county might surprise you. They’re by no means limited to the local gentry. Inside Fauquier, in my experience, Wary Republicans include waitresses, mechanics, plumbers, handymen, teachers, firemen, nurses, soccer moms, truck drivers, homeschoolers, small-business owners, farm workers, wrestling coaches, Boy Scout leaders, friends, neighbors, and that guy at the local coffee shop. They rarely sound angry or upset. They are calm. But they roll their eyes at Beltway pomposity and hold Washington in deep contempt.

I have noticed, though, one specific line of attack guaranteed to infuriate Wary Republicans. And this is when liberal Democrats accuse either Trump voters or the GOP as a whole of being essentially racist, sexist, wicked, and/or ignorant. The feeling seems to be that the president is perfectly capable of defending himself but that when fellow Republican voters are attacked or insulted, those are fighting words.

My conclusion from observing all of the above over the past two years is that if Democrats and progressives want to make their case in this district, they have the ability to do so, and perhaps even the ability to win a county like Fauquier under current circumstances, provided they proceed with the sense of civility and respect they claim to support.

However, the actual pattern on the part of too many prominent liberals these days, nationwide, has more often been a string of insults against anyone who might dare to vote Republican. And this is simply not persuasive.

So if Democrats look to bolster conservative-GOP unity in the months and years ahead — including in counties such as this one — by insulting the motivations of Republican voters, then I have a very different suggestion: Keep talking.


Colin Dueck, a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, is a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism.


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