VIRGINIA BEACH — In the stands on a Friday night at his son’s high school football game across the Chesapeake Bay from the Eastern Shore-based House of Delegates district he represents, Rob Bloxom isn’t especially worried about the looming election.
Bloxom’s been told — jokingly, he says — that he should spend more time in the district to knock on doors. But he says he has meetings to attend as a legislator, a business to run and has to catch his son, Brant, play quarterback for Broadwater Academy (he promised not to miss any games, home or away, when he was elected).
“This job doesn’t make me, it doesn’t define me,” he said of his five years representing the district that includes all of the Eastern Shore and part of Norfolk. “But I want to win and I think I represent the Shore well.”
The 100th District is one of the few rural districts in the state that could flip, meaning Phil Hernandez, Bloxom’s opponent, is getting an influx of cash. Hernandez has more than four times the amount of money Bloxom has.
And he’s brought in Democratic heavyweights to rally volunteers, like U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and Arizona gun reform activist and former U.S. Sen. Gabby Giffords.
The district could be a chance for Democrats to pick up one more seat in November’s General Assembly elections, where control could hinge on a handful of races.
Joshua Zingher, a political science professor at Old Dominion University, said the district may have been overlooked in the past because of assumptions that rural districts favor Republicans.
“It’s not overwhelmingly Republican despite being rural,” Zingher said of the 100th District. “There are (significant) black and Latino populations that might contribute to that.”
Almost half (49%) of the district’s voters broke for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and more than half voted for Eastern Shore native Gov. Ralph Northam (53%) in 2017 and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (54%) in 2018.
Bloxom, who recently opened an auto parts store, has held on to his seat since a special election in 2014 to replace then-Del. Lynwood Lewis, a Democrat who now serves in the state Senate. Democrat Willie Randall challenged Bloxom in 2014, 2015 and 2017. Each election, Randall earned a few percentage points more, topping out at 47% in 2017.
“I think some of the Democrats’ challenge has been recruiting quality candidates,” Zingher said, though he noted Randall performed well. “It’s a tricky type of district to recruit a Democratic candidate in. Finding someone that lives in that district that can appeal to both the city of Norfolk and also to the Eastern Shore — it’s a tough ask.”
Hernandez grew up in Virginia Beach and was the first person in his family to attend college. He went on to William & Mary law school and was a policy analyst for former President Barack Obama.
That experience didn’t earn Hernandez statewide attention from his party right away. When campaigns launched, he didn’t often make it into state party press releases and he wasn’t getting as much financial support.
That has changed.
“There are a lot of districts that are competitive this year, more than any in the past and we’re definitely really excited about Phil as a candidate,” said Kathryn Gilley, spokesperson for House Democrats. “He’s put together a really strong campaign that’s really focused on grassroots enthusiasm … (and) made his mark as a candidate who would be a true representative of the full district.”
In the first campaign filing period, from January to April, Hernandez’s largest donor was Sonjia Smith, a major Democratic contributor from Charlottesville who is married to another mega-donor, Michael Bills. The Democratic party and caucuses hadn’t contributed cash at all.
By June, Gov. Ralph Northam’s PAC had donated $2,500 to Hernandez’s campaign.
“I think I knew I would have to earn every inch of this path,” Hernandez said in an interview in Norfolk. “We have lots of grassroots support, we have the attention of the caucus in a way that we didn’t at the beginning.”
Like fellow Democratic candidates around the state, Hernandez wants to increase education funding. He said it’s a ticket out of poverty for children in the area — 17.8% of people in Accomack County and 18.6% in Northampton County live in poverty compared to 11% statewide, according to the U.S. Census.
He wants to see the state put more money toward sea-level rise mitigation and have an honest debate about gun reform.
“I know that is a sensitive issue for a lot of people but … you’re never going to agree with government 100% of the time,” he said. “What we feel good about is at least there’s a process … to have a debate. We fell far short of that standard.”
Hernandez criticized Bloxom for attending a closed town hall event hosted by the National Rifle Association in July after the Virginia Beach municipal building mass killings. Bloxom shared what was discussed with media afterward.
Bloxom didn’t sponsor or sign on to gun legislation in the regular or special General Assembly sessions. In recent years, Republicans have killed gun legislation in small committees that Bloxom isn’t assigned to, so he hasn’t had to vote on legislation that would tighten gun laws in the state. Bloxom received a $250 donation from the NRA in 2017, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Bloxom is focused on the economy and jobs in his district. Every accomplishment he lists involves bringing something new to the Eastern Shore: A new community college location, more money for a Virginia Institute for Marine Sciences facility, big investments in NASA’s Wallops Island site.
“We’re in an area where jobs are precious,” Bloxom said. “The forces from outside are going to be so heavy, and I don’t want the people on the Shore to lose representation, and in my mind that’s what this race is about.”
He’s raised about $84,000 to Hernandez’s $356,000 to run what he calls a “friends and family” campaign, calling people up personally and reminding them to vote — and that he lives on the Eastern Shore. Hernandez lives in Willoughby Spit, a neighborhood in the Norfolk section of the district.
Bloxom’s inexpensive campaigns have worked in the past, he said, and thinks it can work again despite Hernandez’s nonstop campaign (Hernandez said he left his job to campaign full-time) and deep pockets. In 2017, Bloxom was outspent by Randall’s campaign by nearly $166,000, according to VPAP, but still held on to his seat.
“It can consume your life if you let it,” Bloxom said. “You’ll lose your family, you’ll lose your business, you’ll lose everything because for some reason you think you’re so important the state can’t operate without you, which is totally false. Whichever guy gets it next, the state will move on. Maybe in a little bit different direction, but it will move on.”