2018 Electioneering in Appalachian Virginia

In a couple of previous pieces in CounterPunch I dealt with the political situation in rural southwest Virginia, where I happen to live. As a non-citizen (by choice), I can’t vote, but since I pay taxes I have a vested interest in electoral outcomes.

The two congressional districts in this region are at stake in the November 2018 midterm elections.

The 6th Congressional District covers Roanoke, Lynchburg and much of the Shenandoah Valley.  Its longtime representative, Republican Robert “Bad Bob” (the moniker given him by Ralph Nader) Goodlatte, is retiring, so the election for this district is going to be more open than it has been for decades.

The 9th Congressional District, which borders West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina (the 9this larger than the state of New Jersey), has been represented by the Republican Morgan “the Morgue” Griffithsince 2010.

Politics in this region is superintended by the 4 G’s–  Guns (good), “God” (“good”, but has to be a white deity, preferably blond with blue eyes), Gays (bad), and Gummint/Government (bad).

Politicians, always Republican, who pay obeisance to the 4 Gs have a considerable head start when it comes to vote-gathering in rural America.

Their Democratic counterparts, most of them of the milquetoast variety and looking for something approximating to a strategy, typically do so by liking Guns (a photo-op in camouflage with a hunting rifle can help) and “God”, while hoping that keeping quiet about Gays and showing that Gummint is somehow “not all bad” (hell, it built that paved road near your small farm!) will be just enough to neutralize the in-built ideological advantage enjoyed by Republicans when it comes to the 4 Gs.

This, seemingly, is Trumplandia par excellence.  On the ground, however, the situation is more complex, because Trump has alienated just about anyone not belonging to his “base”.

The election for Bad Bob Goodlatte’s replacement reflects this complexity, with the Democrats fielding a plausible for candidate for the first time in ages.

Bad Bob has been the 6thDistricts Representative since 1993, and his congressional career peaked when he became chair of the House Judiciary Committee in 2013.

Bad Bob’s dismaying voting record speaks for itself, as indicted by the following sample provided by the On the Issueswebsite:

Consistent opposition to abortion rights

Opposition to reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act

Opposition to prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation

Support for a Constitutional definition of marriage as one-man-one-woman

Opposition to regulating the subprime mortgage industry

Voted NO on revitalizing severely distressed public housing

Opposition to Obamacare

Support for more prosecution and jailing for juvenile crime

Opposition to EPA regulation of greenhouse gases

Opposition to EPA expansion of regulated waters

Opposition to 4 weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees (contrast this with Sweden’s policy of giving to all citizens a year’s paid leave for both parents)

Opposition to lawsuits against gun manufacturers

Support in 2006 for building a fence along the Mexican border (maybe Trump stole this idea from Bad Bob?)

Opposition to strengthening the Social Security Lockbox

Voted NO on removing US armed forces from Afghanistan

Voted YES to authorize military force in Iraq to initiate the invasion of that country in 2003

Voted to repeal the death tax, and permanently repeal the estate tax

Voted YES on maintaining the work requirement for welfare recipients (aka Workfare)

Voted to limit welfare to 2 years & cut welfare spending

Bad Bob, by adhering unwaveringly to the 4 Gs, has been sent back to Congress by his district for 25 years, despite enacting legislation with adverse effects on the majority of his constituents for all that time.

Will 2018 be any different?

This is what we know so far about Bad Bob’s replacement as the Republican candidate for election in this district.

Ben Cline, 46, a lawyer like Bad Bob, and an eight-term member of the Virginia House of Delegates, has a conservative voting record there, including sponsoring a resolution to declare the anniversary of Roe v. Wade a “Day of Tears”.

Cline also sponsored legislation to ban sanctuary cities.  He heads a Virginia House of Delegates committee that blocked all gun control legislation in 2018.

Cline has raised more money than all the Democratic candidates combined and has more cash on hand.  Unless the Democrats find a way to defeat Cline, the odds are that he will be an equally long-term no-good successor to Bad Bob Goodlatte.

Cline’s Democratic challenger will be Jennifer Lewis, 36, a mental health professional.

Lewis is concentrating her campaign on the environment, health care, and campaign finance reform.

Lewis is calling for a focus on renewable energy, universal Medicare coverage, as well as the ending of the grotesque legal proposition that corporations are persons.  She says she will not to accept donations from corporations, and supports gun reform, including more stringent background checks, as well as a ban on bump stocks.

Morgan the Morgue’s opponent in the 9thdistrict will be Anthony Flaccavento, a 61-year-old organic farmer who has lived in the district for 32 years, and who challenged Griffith in 2012 (he received 39% of the vote in that election).

The Morgue does not live in the district he purports to represent– he lives in the next-door district represented by Bad Bob.
Like Jennifer Lewis, Flaccavento also supports universal Medicare, investment in renewable energy to enable a transition away from the declining coal-mining industry, and implementing gun safety measures.

Flaccavento won’t accept campaign money from corporations, and wants to overturn Citizens United, the egregious 2010 Supreme Court ruling which permitted unrestricted spending on elections by corporations.

The Morgue refuses to hold town hall meetings, saying he does not like being “fussed at”.  He knows he’ll be confronted at these meetings by voters furious at his fork-tongued antics over the repeal of Obamacare, while not proposing a workable alternative.

As shown by the snapshot below, taken from an announcement in our local newspaper, the Morgue will however preside at the “grand opening” of a vineyard in his district.

Meanwhile Flaccavento has held 60 town hall meetings, and will hold dozens more until the November election.

The contrast between Flaccavento and the Morgue is stark.  The latter’s voting record is very similar to Bad Bob’s.  When it comes to fund-raising, the Morgue’s main donors in 2017-18 (according to The Center for Responsive Politics) are health professionals, electric utilities, leadership PACs, the pharmaceutical industry, and oil and gas companies.

The Morgue delivers tax cuts, and “less red tape”, to utility and energy companies, as well as big pharma and the health insurance racket.  No wonder they donate to politicians like him.

Even so, Jennifer Lewis and Anthony Flaccavento face an uphill task.  Virginia is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.

The 6thDistrict has been Republican for decades, and while the 9thwas represented by the estimable Democrat Rick Boucher for 28-years before the Morgue defeated him in 2010, Trump, while losing in Virginia overall in 2016, defeated Hillary Clinton 59%-35% in the 6th, and 68%-27% in the 9th.

Trump’s base clearly prevailed in 2016.  So, who are these Trump supporters?

They belong, broadly, to two categories–  expressing themselves invariably in terms of the above-mentioned 4 Gs.  The two groupings also overlap significantly.

The first group comprises conservative voters whose communities have been undermined, and in many cases devastatingly so, by decades of neoliberalism and globalization. The political status quo, represented by Republicans and Democrats alike, has sold their economic well-being down the river.

The second group comprises voters seemingly not concerned about the economy, but with a futile nostalgia for an America dominated by white men–  a time when homophobia, racism, and misogyny were largely unchallenged or unquestioned outside the US’s metropolitan and liberal elites.

Trump, in 2016, honed his appeal towards this combination of the economically disadvantaged and culturally resentful, with an opportunistic nod towards the 4 Gs, and the outcome of the 2018 midterms, in rural Virginia and elsewhere, will hinge on his ability to maintain this appeal.

The complexity here is that Trump has mobilized (so far) not just his base in these parts, the so-called neo-Confederacy, but also his Democratic opponents, who are starting to abandon the Wall Streeter Schumer-Pelosi-Clinton milquetoast axis of the party in favour of its wing identifying with Bernie Sanders.

A facet of this complexity was revealed a few days ago in the Republican primary to choose a candidate to challenge Virginia’s incumbent corporate Democratic senator Tim Kaine (Clinton’s running-mate in the 2016 election).

The winner in this Republican primary was Corey Stewart, a demagogic and xenophobic neo-Confederate with “Sweet Home Alabama” as his campaign song, of course backed by Trump.

Stewart defeated a slightly less rightwing ex-Green Beret who had two tours of Iraq, who for instance made a campaign speech linking school shootings to “the abortion industry”.

The surprising aspect of the ultra-rightwing Stewart’s victory is that he defeated his marginally less rightwing rival in most of Northern Virginia (NOVA).

In the Republican primary in NOVA, the white supremacist Stewart got 56% of the vote in Prince William County, 49% in Fairfax County, and won Loudoun County with 51% of the vote.

Voting districts in NOVA are the most populous in Virginia. As The Roanoke Timespointed out in its excellent analysisof the Virginia primary results, there are many more Trump voters in NOVA (Democratic stronghold though it may be) than there are in rural Virginia: “Stewart got them to the polls, and that’s why he’s now the Republican nominee. Stewart mined precisely 2,000 votes out of the coal counties. He got nine times that, and more, out of Fairfax County”.

In 2015 Loudon County had a median household income of $122,641, and Fairfax County a median household income of $110,507.  These median incomes are among the ultra-highest bracket in the US.

NOVA, in addition to providing lucrative jobs in high tech, government, lobbying and “consultancy”, is also a part of the US with a very highly percentage of people with college degrees.

So why did Republican voters in NOVA, a Democratic stronghold, go for someone who is trying to out-Trump Trump, instead of his more moderate Republican opponent?

There is no obvious reason for this outcome at this point, but turnout in the Republican primary statewide was low, with a preponderance of retired baby boomers at the Republican polls.

Did these Republican baby boomers sell-out the younger and much less prosperous?

Judging by his congratulatory tweet to Stewart, Trump at least seemingly thought so.

At 4.55 am Trump tweeted after Stewarts’ victory was announced: “Congratulations to Corey Stewart for his great victory for Senator from Virginia.  Now he runs against a total stiff, Tim Kaine, who is weak on crime and borders, and wants to raise your taxes through the roof. Don’t underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!”.

Corey Stewart prevailed in the Republican primary, but he has virtually no chance, statewide, against a well-known incumbent corporate Democrat, who was also governor before he became a senator.

Only Trump and other diehards believe their soulmate Corey Stewart has a chance, bearing in mind that Virginia was the only former Confederate state not won by Trump in 2016.

Senator Kaine’s supporters are already starting to toast his victory in November.

Kaine, in his “winning formula”, will of course do everything to ensure that Wall Street prospers, while of course not espousing the neo-Confederate xenophobia and racism appealing to Trump’s base.

Such is “progressive” politics in one of the richest parts of the US.

In rural Virginia, the genuine alternative for most of us is represented by Jennifer Lewis and Anthony Flaccavento, and much less by Tim Kaine and certainly not by Corey Stewart.

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