Politics in Tidewater begins to take-off ahead of fall elections

jojacobs@tidewaterreview.com

As President Donald Trump wraps up his first six months in office, signs point to a growing liberal mobilization amid a continued strong conservative populace in Tidewater.

In November, King William, New Kent and King & Queen voters cast 16,192 ballots for Trump, outpacing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by a 2:1 margin. Ultimately, Clinton won the state, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

The region skews red. But Democratic participation in June's gubernatorial primary and the unusual presence of Democratic candidates for House seats suggest local liberals are trying to flex their political muscle.

Liberal groundswell

"We're in a very active place right now," King William Democrats chairwoman Betsy Donoghue said of her organization.

King William Democrats attribute increased activity to opposition to Trump's policies and the energy that comes with being the party out of power, Donoghue said.

King William Democrats primarily aim to resist Republicans' efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"The (Affordable Care Act) is at high risk," Donoghue said, adding that rural broadband and education are other important issues to her organization.

But while keen to affect policy, the organization also looks to expand its current membership of around 35 people to become a more visible presence in the county, King William Democrats secretary Josh Rellick said.

The organization hopes to attract more members with events and support candidates to run in local elections.

Across King William, New Kent and King & Queen 2,132 ballots were cast in the June Democratic primary between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Congressman Tom Perriello. Statewide, 542,816 people voted in the Democratic primary, according to unofficial election results.

Those figures are an increase compared to voter tallies in the previous Democratic gubernatorial primary, which was held in 2009. In that contest, 1,309 people in Tidewater voted. In Virginia, 319,168 votes were cast in the election, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Democrats didn't hold a primary in 2013 because Gov. Terry McAuliffe was the only candidate to file for the primary. McAuliffe defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli with about 48 percent of the vote.

In November, Tidewater voters will select representatives in the House of Delegates. This year's ballots will come with an unusual feature — Democratic candidates.

New Kent voters, along with some voters in King William will choose between incumbent Del. Chris Peace, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger Cori Johnson to represent the 97th District.

In the 98th District, voters in the West Point area of King William and King & Queen will have to consider incumbent Republican Del. Keith Hodges and Sheila Crowley, a Democrat.

Both challengers are political newcomers who've said they were inspired to run as a result of the presidential election.

A Democrat hasn't been on the ballot for at least several years in each district.

The last Democrat to run in the 97th District was J. W. Montgomery, who took about 48 percent of the vote in a special election that Peace won in 2006, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Andrew Shoukas ran as a Democrat in the 98th District in 2011, only to capture about 21 percent of the vote in a contest against Hodges, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Challenges offered by Johnson and Crowley follow a statewide trend of increased Democratic participation in House of Delegate elections, said John McGlennon, a government and public policy professor at the College of William and Mary. McGlennon served as the college's government department chairman from 1993 to 2001.

"There's exceptional interest," McGlennon said.

Of Virginia's 100 House of Delegate seats 65 are contested by a Democrat, which is a roughly two-fold increase compared to 2015.

Conservatives hold firm

While local Democrats wring their hands over Trump's activity, their conservative neighbors are generally content with the country's course and pan criticism of the president.

"I think what he has done is moving the country in the right direction," said Bill Rilee of the King & Queen Republicans.

While ambivalent toward Trump in the early stages of the Republican presidential primary, King William Tea Party chairman Bob Shannon considers the president an energetic and intelligent head of state.

Shannon criticized national news media's attention on alleged connections between Trump and his administration and the Russian government. He called it hypocritical because previous administrations have established back-channel interactions with the Russian government.

The longstanding national back-and-forth between Tea Party conservatives and establishment Republicans is felt locally.

The gulf between the Tea Party and establishment Republicans is wide, as the former strives to reform government spending while the latter is less willing to deviate from the status quo, Shannon said.

Shannon believes like-minded conservatives are on the rise locally.

In 2015, three incumbent King William supervisors were defeated. Among the victorious challengers were Dave Hansen and Bob Ehrhart. Both candidates aligned with the local Tea Party's principles.

"We see sharp divisions in the state's GOP," McGlennon said, referring to the results of the close-fought Republican gubernatorial primary in June.

Local results in June's Republican gubernatorial primary show greater support for the Trump-esque firebrand Cory Stewart compared to moderate Ed Gillespie, who won statewide in the race. Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) also ran. Pundits cast the contest as a bellwether of Trump's popularity.

Though the former Republican National Committee chairman earned the nomination to take on Northam in November, Stewart carried King William and New Kent.

Stewart, Trump's former Virginia campaign manager, took 544 votes to Gillespie's 412 votes in King William. Voters cast 851 votes for Stewart and 678 for Gillespie in New Kent. Republicans in King & Queen cast 196 votes for Gillespie and 172 votes for Stewart, according to unofficial election results.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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