A State Assembly Race in Rural Virginia Gains National A

As a non-citizen, I can’t vote in American elections, but there is an engrossing race for a Virginia House of Delegates seat in Virginia’s 12th District (Blacksburg, Radford, Pulaski and Giles County) where I live, which has received national attention.

With a population of 80,000, 50% of the voters in the 12th District reside in Montgomery County (the location of Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech, which leans consistently to the Democrats), with about 25% in Giles County (which leans to the Republicans), nearly 20% in Radford, and less than 10% in Pulaski County (which also leans to the Republicans).

In a “normal” year, a state-assembly race in rural Virginia would receive scant attention even locally, but Trump has created some of the clearest lines of demarcation in US politics existing since the Civil War.

This has enlivened politics at the local level, as Republican candidates are confronted with the delightful choice of supporting a president from their own party with historically low ratings, or repudiating him in rural districts where the Orange Swindler enjoys considerable support.

The 12th district race features the 3-time Republican incumbent Joseph Yost, and the Democrat’s Chris Hurst, a newcomer to politics who was a news anchor at a local TV station, until the on-air fatal shooting of his girlfriend Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward by a disgruntled ex-reporter at the same station.

Hurst decided after this tragedy that he could no longer continue being a TV anchor, and opted to run for the 12th district’s assembly seat.

Yost, Hurst’s opponent, is in many respects a fairly typical rural Virginian Republican politician, adhering to the “God and guns (both good) and gays and gummint (both bad)” refrain.

He campaigns locally on “soft” issues that are uncontroversial for his core supporters– backing the gun lobby, and endorsing better mental health provision and education (has any campaigner in the history of an advanced industrial country ever been “against” education, so anodyne is this as an electoral issue?).

Yost’s voting record in the Virginia House of Delegates, however, has shown him to be much more envenomed ideologically than the image of the emollient politician he projects locally.

Like many a Republican politician, Yost relies on his constituents to vote against their own interests.

Yost has voted against Medicaid expansion and abortion rights, and supported defunding Planned Parenthood.

He’s also voted in favour of carrying concealed handguns, of reducing the benefits of public-sector employees, of congressional redistricting (a polite term for gerrymandering), of prayer in schools, as well as requiring law enforcement officers to enquire about the immigration status of the suspect at the time of arrest; and against sanctuary cities, against the increase of the minimum wage, and against limits on handgun purchases.

With this voting record, the humble public servant Yost would gratify a feral Republican such as House Speaker Paul Ryan!

Hurst is a telegenic 30-year old (the same age as Yost), winner of 2 Edward R Murrow awards as a broadcaster, and is a well-known face in the region because of his previous career.  He is campaigning against nearly everything Yost represents.

Yost is not much of a public figure, and owes his success to his zeal in doing the minuscule things that please constituents– the winner of a local pie-making contest will get a handwritten letter of congratulations from him, while Yost votes to cut their healthcare.

Hurst, relying almost entirely on small donations, has a slight edge on Yost in fundraising, but the Virginia Republican party will almost certainly top-up the latter’s coffers when the November election approaches.

The Republican strategy is to pour money into seemingly minor local races because control of state assemblies translates into control of the redistricting process, this being essential for political (and racial) gerrymandering, and this in turn assures the GOP of a majority over the Democrats at the national level.  According to Salon.com:

The Republican mapmakers who gerrymandered our democracy so effectively after the GOP’s historic 2010 victory… have made it hard for the voters to affect elections. The strategy was dubbed REDMAP, for Redistricting Majority Project, and it was brilliant in its execution. With $30 million or less than the cost of some losing Senate races — smartly spent in the right districts in the right states — Republican strategists turned the House of Representatives red for a decade, and maybe longer.

According to NBC News, Republican gerrymandering is so rampant that Republican gerrymanderers are currently facing legal challenges in 8 states.

The Orange Swindler’s imaginary African country of “Nambia” would be hard pushed to surpass this travesty of the democratic process.

But the US is not, and indeed never has been, a fully-fledged democracy (the device of the Electoral College, designed to override the popular vote, alone precludes this).

So, it would be unwise to view the election of Chris Hurst as the event which could initiate the restoration of democracy in Southwest Virginia, or anywhere else in the US.

All Hurst can do, assuming he is elected in November, is slowdown the exponential rate of American democracy’s erosion.

It is a sign of our dismal times that this makes him, for more than a few, something of a minor messiah in this part of the country.

Meanwhile Yost will avoid mentioning the dotard-in-chief (hat tip to you know who for this moniker) in his campaign pitches, and hope his assiduous writing of letters of congratulation to winners of pie-making competitions in his district will see him through.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.