Normally, at this time of year, campaigns would really be ramping up, with all kinds of events, getting out there hitting the “stump,” debating, etc, etc. This year, of course, is very different, given COVID-19, but still, we *do* have important primaries coming up on June 23, including in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District – formerly held by Tom Perriello, but since 2011, (mis)represented by a string of godawful Republicans (Robert Hurt, Tom Garrett, and now Denver Riggleman).
Just to give you a feel for the political makeup of this district, note that it was won by neo-Confederate Corey Stewart over Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018, albeit by a narrow, 50%-48% margin; and by Donald Trump in 2016 by 14 points, so it’s definitely a “red” district. Still, it’s worth pointing out that Rep. Riggleman recently was named (by “Roll Call”) the 4th-most-vulnerable incumbent U.S. House members in the country, in large part because he could lose the GOP nomination to even more far-right/extreme Bob Good. Also, the DCCC last fall added VA05 to its 2020 target list, with Roll Call writing, “Democrats see it moving in their direction, and national Republicans expended resources here both in 2016 and 2018 to keep the seat red.”
In 2018, Democrats nominated Leslie Cockburn, who defeated Andrew Sneathern and RD Huffstetler (who’s running again this time) in the caucus/convention nomination process, then went on to lose the general election to Riggleman by a 53%-47% margin. Obviously, Democrats didn’t win VA05 in 2018, but 6 points isn’t exactly a blowout either. So what might change in 2020? For one thing, it’s a presidential election year, so almost certainly turnout will be extremely high. Hopefully, that will help Democrats on net, but we’ll see. Second, Denver Riggleman could either be defeated by his even-more-far-right opponent, Bob Good, which as Chaz Nuttycombe has written, “if Good becomes the nominee and defeats incumbent Denver Riggleman (R) at the convention, we’ll be moving the race to Lean R” (from Likely R currently). Or, even if Riggleman hangs on, this incredibly nasty, bitter primary could leave lasting scars and hurt the nominee in November. For an illustration of how nasty this race has been, see this recent interview with Riggleman on right-wing talk radio, in which Riggleman calls out “The Corruption and Graft of the GOP 5th District and Bob Good.” Yikes. Finally, note that Riggleman had less cash-on-hand than two of his Democratic opponents (RD Huffstetler, Claire Russo) as of the 1Q2020, and not much more than another Democratic opponent (Cameron Webb), which is obviously not impressive on Riggleman’s part.
With that…time to get to know the 5th CD Democratic candidates – RD Huffstetler, Cameron Webb, John Lesinski and Claire Russo. For starters, check out my interviews with Cameron Webb and John Lesinski (note: I’m happy to interview the other two if they’re interested). Also, see below for videos of the candidates, produced by the Nelson County Democratic Committee (nice job!) – “The questions cover why the candidates decided to run for the seat, how the COVID-19 pandemic affects their views on health care policy, what policies they would pursue in the light of the downturn in the economy, how they would strengthen educational opportunities for children, their thoughts on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and energy needs in the 5th District, and their plans to challenge the Republican nominee for the seat.”
Claire Russo: Said she’s running because the politics of the last few years has gotten “too personal,” and is not going to stand by and watch Republicans strip Americans of their health care or act on “meaningful gun safety reforms.” Said she knew she wanted to be a Marine when she was 10, “I wanted to serve this country…that I loved…i want to take that service to Washington and I want to give…the Virginians of the 5th district the representation they deserve.” On healthcare, Russo said she supports a public option, such as in Sen. Tim Kaine’s Medicare X plan, and believes “healthcare is a human right.” On restoring the economy after COVID-19, she said “we have got to prioritize workers, not CEOs and shareholders…we’ve got to put the money back in the hands of people who need it…bailing out Main St. not Wall St.” On education, Russo said we need to raise teacher pay, ensure that teachers can live in the neighborhoods where they work, ensure that kids are safe in schools, etc. On the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and energy/environment, she said she does NOT support it, that climate change highlights existing inequities in society, that we have to transition to clean energy “urgently” both for climate and for economic reasons. “Climate change poses an existential threat…it’s certainly a national security threat.” On taking on Republicans, she said she never “shies away from a tough fight,” that “we need a candidate who can bring people together…put people over party, put this country over politics and special interests.” “It has never been clear that we need bold leadership in Washington…I have led teams of Marines…advised three-star generals…worked with members of Congress on legislation…taken on the military bureaucracy on sexual assault…and won…I can beat Denver or Bob Good in November…I was trained by the Marines to run towards the fight.”
Cameron Webb: Said he’s running because, as an internal medicine physician, he’s passionate about healthcare access and cost; believes he has the experience and expertise to fix the healthcare system. On healthcare reform, he said “it’s not as simple as talking points…healthcare is a human right,” supports a public option but isn’t opposed to Medicare for All. On restoring the economy, he said “the first order of business is really to make sure that we can keep our small businesses alive… a lot of federal investment in Main Street as opposed to federal investment in Wall Street…[also] additional stimulus dollars…moratorium on turning off electricity…on folks losing their homes.” On education, he said teachers need to be paid more, where teachers can stay in communities where they work; need to enhance educational equity, and added that not all the solutions are within the schools, but also in the communities more broadly, such as broadband expansion. On the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, energy/enviro, Webb said that “the goal is to try to retire some of these coal plants; it’s much cleaner than coal and
folks think it’s moving in the right direction, but the reality of it is we face an absolutely existential crisis when it comes to our climate crisis…we need to decarbonize by mid-century…save our environment.” On winning in November, Webb said we need to make sure people, particularly African Americans, vote in the election – “expand the electorate”; and really run hard on healthcare (and Riggleman’s failure on that issue).
John Lesinski: He said he’s running as “a matter of the head and a matter of the heart,” that he has a “wealth of experience” and is the only Democrat who was elected onto the Board of Supervisors and the School Board in a Republican county,” so is the most electable. Ha added, “I don’t think that there’s any time certainly in my lifetime that I can remember where our country was in such a jeopardy…we are really on a tipping point here and it’s time for all hands on deck.” On healthcare, he said: “I am a proponent of the Affordable Care Act; I think we need to keep it.. but I think we need to improve it. Not only do we need to improve it with the public option, but we need to fast-track to universal health care from introducing that public option…I believe that health care is a right in this country and not just a privilege.” On the economy, he said, “we’re really going to need to be focused on how to get how to get people back to work how to get our businesses open again.” He added that we need to be “transitioning into 21st century technology jobs,” including “green jobs” and “rural broadband,” and that he’s the “only business person in this race.” On education, Lesinski said he served as Chair of the School Board so understands the challenges of our schools very well. He said public education is underfunded, teachers are underpaid, that we have to improve education to improve our economy. On the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, energy/environment, Lesinski said “we don’t need it…it’s devastating for our environment…we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels as a nation…take climate change very seriously…reduce the carbon footprint…the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is…an environmental justice travesty…I would stand up against that.” How would he win in November? He said he’s held elective office at a local level and has won in a Republican county as a Democrat “not once, but twice.”
RD Huffstetler: Said he’s running because his own path of upward mobility is going away, that he has “a problem with inequality.” On healthcare, he said he supports Sen. Tim Kaine’s “Medicare X” plan, including putting a public option on “all of our exchanges right away.” “I want everybody to have health care; it’s a human right…it’s the right thing to do…it’s good for the economy.” On the economic recovery from COVID-19, “we’re going to need policies that support small business…need a good, strong Small Business Administration.” On education, he said the key is having good teachers, paying them well, enhancing loan programs. On the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, he said: “We do not need a pipeline; the future of energy in our country is every American needs to be able to collect, store and sell their own energy.” On winning in November, he said it’s “not an easy district to win,” that we need to need to try to double the vote for the Democratic nominee in Republican areas by focusing locally, getting local leaders to support the Democrat, talking about issues like infrastructure and healthcare”; “follow the Tim Kaine model” and “build on that matter.”