The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

GATE CITY — Many Americans are closely following the emerging race between President Donald Trump and a large field of Democratic challengers, but when Del. Todd Pillion told a group of Republicans that this election “is easily the most important that we’ve seen in a generation,” he wasn’t talking about 2020.

Instead, Pillion, R-Washington County, addressing a room of about 70 Republican activists at the Scott County Vocational Center, was talking about Virginia’s legislative races this fall, when all 140 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate are up for grabs.

Although Pillion, who currently represents the 4th House District but is running as the Republican nominee for the 40th Senate District, was talking about state elections, his speech had a national flavor.

“We are one vote, one election, and one bill away from being New York and California,” Pillion said.

Pillion warned southwest Virginia Republicans that not just abortion and gun rights were at stake, but the remnants of southwest Virginia’s fossil fuel economy. Pillion specifically called out a Virginia version of the so-called “Green New Deal” to shift the state to 100% renewable energy.

“Of course we have our own AOC, our own congressman [Alexandria Ocasio-]Cortez,” Pillion said, referring to the freshman representative from New York.

“His name is Del. [Sam] Rasoul from Roanoke, who carried the same bill that she carried in in Congress. He carried it in Virginia this past session. We are one vote from that happening in our commonwealth. Can you imagine what that would do to our southwest Virginia economy that’s just now trying to recover from the eight years that [former President Barack] Obama put us in? Can you imagine what that would do to us?”

With a string of statewide sweeps dating back to 2012, and coming within a single vote of parity in the House of Delegates in 2017, Democrats appear to be headed into the 2019 General Assembly elections with momentum — or at least they did before a scandal trifecta struck the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, all Democrats.

In the southwest corner of Virginia, Republicans are going on the offensive. This is, after all, their strongest region. The 1st House district and 40th Senate district, which overlap, served as high-water marks for Trump’s Virginia performance in the 2016 election. He won 80% in the 1st, his second best House district, and 78% in the 40th, his best Senate district.

Or consider the 2018 U.S. Senate race: Incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine won by so much that the Associated Press declared him the winner within minutes of the polls closing, and yet Republican challenger Corey Stewart still won 64% in the 9th congressional district, which extends southwest from Roanoke.

Southwest Virginia represents an increasingly small portion of the electorate, so it’s important not to infer too much from these two legislative districts. Yet they also give some indications of how Republicans elsewhere will campaign.

Pillion and 1st House District incumbent Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, clearly are leaning into national wedge issues that bled into Virginia politics during the 2019 General Assembly session — in some cases because Republicans wanted to showcase them.

‘It’s about rural values’

The Virginia equivalent of the Green New Deal was allowed to pass committee and garner statewide media attention before it was killed on the House of Delegates floor. Republicans in the Virginia Senate similarly allowed a bill calling for a $15-per-hour minimum wage to come to the floor before killing it.

Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who also doesn’t yet have an opponent, said he’s glad these issues received a hearing before lawmakers and voters. He said his energy legislation “helps to uplift working and vulnerable families,” including those in southwestern Virginia.

“We’re talking about a just transition where, over the next several decades, we can plan and uplift a lot of these working families, specifically in areas that have been devastated economically like southwest Virginia,” Rasoul said.

Regardless of the sponsor’s intentions, Republicans now are using those bills, along with the firestorm set off by videos of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, and Gov. Ralph Northam, clumsily discussing a bill that would have eased restrictions on late-term abortion, to argue that Democrats simply can’t be trusted to govern a state that’s as sharply divided as the United States as a whole.

“It’s about rural values,” said Kilgore, who has comfortably held his House seat since 1994.

“Our values are a lot different than the other part of the state, talking about the Golden Crescent, that [Interstate] 95 corridor … Voters want you to protect the Second Amendment, they want you to be pro-life, and especially they don’t want to you [support bills that] allow abortion at any time. They really like those hard-working values, that you get a good job and you keep a good job.”

The crowd of activists at the Scott County meeting audibly reacted more to abortion than any other topic.

Larry Maggard of Lee County said that’s the biggest issue for him this election.

“For me, it’s just like he was talking there a few minutes ago, this so-called partial birth abortion,” Maggard said after the meeting. “That’s a big deal. Partial-birth was bad, but now it’s not just partial birth, it’s killing them after they’re born. That’s a big thing.”

Asked what will drive votes in the region, Dlynn Lawson of Scott County also named abortion as a top issue. “I think they’re going to pull the lever on who will help Virginia stand with Donald Trump on issues like illegal immigration and abortion,” she said.

There’s more disagreement over the question of whether Bristol, which is part of the 40th Senate District, should legalize gambling for a casino. Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would allow casino gaming in the city if voters pass a referendum.

Maggard is against it because of concerns over gambling: “That’s a poor way for a town to get revenue.” Lawson favors it to bring “a lot of jobs and revenue to the area.” Jerry Broadwater, who was Scott County sheriff from 1991 to 2007, supports it.

“I think it would be good for the economy,” Broadwater said. “If people are going to gamble, they’re going to go somewhere. Most people now are going to Cherokee or Mississippi or Charleston. I think it would help the economy.”

‘Turned off by this extreme liberal agenda’

Although they divided on gambling, the Republicans at the meeting expressed a clear unanimity in their support of the president. Trump’s presence in the White House energizes Democratic voters in other parts of Virginia, but here, he motivates Republicans.

“I support President Trump and have worked to align some of our policies at the state level on issues such as the opioid epidemic and tax reform,” Pillion said in an email after the meeting.

In the email, Pillion named jobs and economic and workforce development as the most important issues in the campaign, but when asked about which party will win the House and Senate, he referred back to the wedge issues that appeared in his stump speech.

“Between the scandals that rocked the executive branch and the extreme agenda on full display with late-term abortion, comments suggesting infanticide, and Green New Deal-like policies, people got a taste of what they could expect from a Democrat-controlled House or Senate,” Pillion said. “This has fueled Republicans  — and others for that matter — who are turned off by this extreme liberal agenda.”

As of May 1, Pillion does not have a Democratic challenger. He does face an independent, Marion Director of Community and Economic Development Ken Heath.

Heath had initially filed to run as a Republican but withdrew his party candidacy the week before the mass meeting. A 2018 graduate of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership’s Political Leaders Program, Heath said he got a call just hours before incumbent Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, announced his retirement and endorsed Pillion.

That day also happened to be the deadline to file with the Republican committee to seek the nomination for the seat.

“Just by the grace of God and a phone call, I was able to get my paperwork in,” Heath said. “The problem is there wasn’t an opportunity for anyone else to do that. I know there are folks who have a different opinion than either of us do on the casino in Bristol. I want to win, but I want to win fair and square.

“I want the best candidate out there I can beat. I don’t want a coronation. I want to be down in the trenches, and put forth our ideas and have the voters decide.”

With the mass meeting set in Gate City — the result of a mid-1990s agreement between Kilgore and then Sen. William Wampler to coordinate their nominating procedures — Heath was frustrated by the fact that Republicans on the northern end of the district would have to drive 80 miles on a weekday. He chose to run as an independent, trading the benefits of party affiliation to give himself more time to campaign and throw the question to voters instead of party activists.

Once Heath withdrew, the meeting in Gate City went from a nomination brawl to a smaller party meeting with a meal and stump speeches by Kilgore and Pillion.

Kilgore still has no opponent.

In 2017, when he faced his first challenger in a decade, he won 76% of the vote. That security has allowed him to occasionally drift from the party line, for example when he led a contingent of Republicans in 2018 who partnered with Democrats to expand Medicaid. Twenty-three Republicans voted for Medicaid expansion, including several from southwestern Virginia.

Only three now face primary challengers: Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, Bob Thomas, R-Fredericksburg, and Chris Peace, R-Hanover County, none of whom are based in the southwest part of the state. Kilgore, part of a local multi-generational political dynasty, has occasionally been challenged by district residents over his Medicaid vote.

In his response, Kilgore often cites coal’s decline in Virginia, where employment has fallen by more than 25 percent over the last decade and remained flat since Trump took office, as well as the congressional failure to act on health care. For the most part, however, Kilgore remains closely aligned with the “rural values” of southwestern Virginia voters.

Ultimately it will be voters in the state’s suburbs and exurbs and not in rural areas who decide which party holds majorities in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. But the messages emanating from the southwest corner of the commonwealth will shape the statewide election.

And the winners will have to govern all of Virginia, not just their partisan slice of it.