Most of the battleground districts in this fall's critical elections for the Virginia House of Delegates are in the state's cities and suburbs, but Republicans are also targeting something of a rare breed in Virginia politics: Democrats who represent mostly rural districts.
Republicans portray Delegates Roslyn Tyler and Chris Hurst as radical liberals and accuse them of neglecting their constituents in Southside and southwestern Virginia, predominantly rural districts that include some of the most economically stagnant areas of the state.
The elections will determine whether Democrats can hold on in the state’s increasingly conservative rural pockets, and whether the GOP can regain any ground in places where opposition to Donald Trump drove Republicans from office.
“I have delivered for my district. I have delivered on education, I have delivered on affordable health care, expansion of Medicaid, I have delivered on broadband," said Tyler, who has held her seat in Virginia's Southside since 2006.
Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the House, but Republicans are going after the seats of 13 potentially vulnerable Democrats, including some in rural districts and others in the suburbs of northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
In a shift seen nationwide, Virginia has experienced a geographical sorting over the last 30 years, with the Democratic Party increasingly becoming a party of the cities and suburbs, while the Republican Party is seen as the party of rural areas, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
“That means the regions rise and fall depending on which party is in the majority,” Farnsworth said.
Hurst, a former TV journalist running for his third term, is being challenged by Republican Jason Ballard, an attorney, Army veteran and member of the Pearisburg town council. Tyler is locked in a rematch with Republican Otto Wachsmann, a pharmacist who lost the 2019 race by just 506 votes.
Conservatives are using national themes to argue against the Democratic incumbents. The Republican State Leadership Committee PAC portrayed Tyler as anti-law enforcement and Hurst as tax-happy and unconcerned about inflation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Radical liberal Chris Hurst, he's even worse for your wallet than Washington,” a narrator says in a TV ad that criticizes Hurst for voting for an increase in Virginia's gas tax.
Republicans cite Tyler's membership in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which called for numerous police reforms after Floyd's death, including “divesting from large law enforcement budgets & investing more in communities,” which the GOP committee PAC says amounts to defunding the police.
“I think it's smoke and mirrors on their part,” Tyler said. “There's no way I would defund the police."
Hurst says he voted for the 2020 gas tax hike — the first in more than three decades — because the state needs the revenue to pay for long-standing transportation infrastructure issues “that Republicans for 20 years in control failed to do.” Hurst, who was elected to his seat in 2017, entered politics after his girlfriend was gunned down while conducting an interview on live TV for their Roanoke station.
In both races, the Republican challengers say the Democratic incumbents haven't paid enough attention to their districts, which haven't prospered the way other parts of the state have, particularly northern Virginia, a wealthy and more populous region.
Wachsmann says the “extreme liberal agenda” of the Democratic Party threatens the rural way of life in Southside Virginia, an area that stretches from south of Richmond to the North Carolina border and includes expansive tracts of open land, but also encompasses the cities of Emporia and Franklin.
Farming and forestry are two of the largest industries in a region where hunting and skeet shooting are long-held traditions. Tyler has been endorsed by the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, which wrote in an editorial that she has “consistently voted to support the values of rural Virginia.”
Wachsmann says he'll work to create jobs, attract new residents and restore regional pride.
“The biggest issue is that nobody has fought for the Southside district before and they've always been forgotten," he said.
Hurst's district covers large rural areas in southwestern Virginia and also includes the city of Radford and the town of Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech dominates and gives Democrats a built-in constituency among the student body of 30,000.
Hurst's opponent has criticized him for voting for a failed bill that called for ending qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity protects officers from being held liable for alleged abuses.
“He essentially was vilifying our police officers, and I just thought that it was so wrong,” Ballard said.
Hurst said he has been a friend to law enforcement and advocated for recently approved pay bonuses. He also voted for police reforms approved by the legislature in 2020, including bills banning no-knock search warrants and enabling localities to establish civilian review boards with subpoena power and disciplinary authority.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, one of only two Democrats who represent predominantly rural districts in the state Senate, began his political career in the early 1990s in the House of Delegates, when Democrats held seats in many of the state’s rural districts. Deeds said he believes many people mistakenly view the Republican Party as the party of rural regions.
“The Democrats have been the ones fighting for rural broadband, fighting for rural economic development, we've been fighting for schools,” he said.
Deeds said Democrats need to focus on bread-and-butter issues to appeal to rural voters.
“Focus on economic opportunity, on education, and things that will create the possibility of success in rural areas," he said.