Freitas write-in ballot and pen
A campaign worker shows a sample Republican ballot and Nick Freitas pen at the polls in Culpeper Nov. 5, 2019. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

CULPEPER — Not everyone in Virginia’s 30th House District was voting for Nick Freitas, but everyone wanted a pen with his name on it.

“It’s a free pen,” said Culpeper resident Stan Morford with a shrug as he and his wife went to cast a vote for “any Democrat” — which Freitas is not — at the county’s Pearl Sample precinct early Tuesday afternoon. 

He wasn’t the only one with that outlook. Not five minutes earlier, a campaign worker wearing a Freitas t-shirt had ducked into the Culpeper County Republican Committee tent to tell Dewey McDonnell, a committee member and the Culpeper County coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty, that the writing instruments were “going like crazy.”

Why the fuss about the pens? This reporter tried one out and discovered that they are, in fact, very good pens. But, more importantly, they were also a critical part of Freitas’ efforts to ramp up voter recognition after he failed to file his election paperwork on time and was left off the ballot for the 30th District seat — despite being the incumbent. 

The strategy seems to have worked. As of Tuesday night, the incumbent Freitas appeared to have won a decisive victory over Democratic challenger Ann Ridgeway, with numbers from the Virginia Public Access Project showing nearly 58 percent of the 30th District’s votes going to a write-in candidate, compared to only about 42 percent for Ridgeway. 

The Republicans’ successful defense of the 30th District followed a particularly vigorous write-in campaign by the delegate. Freitas hired a consulting firm that had successfully steered Alaskan congresswoman Lisa Murkowski’s 2010 write-in campaign. He deployed door-knockers around the 30th District, even to rural areas that don’t normally see any campaigning. He papered the roadsides with signs bearing his name in a font that resembles handwriting. And he bought thousands of pens emblazoned with “Write In Nick Freitas” for campaign workers at every precinct in the district to hand out to voters so that, in some small way, his name would still appear at every polling place.

“They’ve been doing the work,” said Jon Russell, chair of the Culpeper County Republican Committee on Tuesday afternoon. “A lot of it’s just educating people on the correct way to do this.”

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

While much discussion this fall centered on just how important it was that voters spelled Freitas’ last name right — not very important, it turned out — campaign workers Tuesday were mostly concerned with making sure that voters filled in the bubble on their ballot before the write-in line.

“It’s different,” said McDonnell. “But we kind of welcome the opportunity, because we get to engage people more.”

Even Democratic campaigners conceded that their opponent’s team had adopted some clever tactics.

The pens, said Jim Restel, a volunteer for the Culpeper County Democratic Committee at the East Fairfax precinct, were “a pretty good strategy.”

Republicans in Culpeper seemed optimistic throughout the afternoon. Steps from Restel’s tent, Freitas’ mother, Robin McMichael, handed out pens to voters in a t-shirt with the slogan “Write in Nick Freitas.” Asked if she thought her son would win, she replied without hesitation, “Yes.”

“Having the write-in campaign creates a synergy that wouldn’t be there otherwise, because people are both excited and worried,” said Russell. “It’s a test of the work that he’s done here and the support that he has here.”

As he chatted, a new voter approached the polls and Russell quickly pivoted to hand him a pen and a Republican sample ballot.

“This is the official pen,” he joked.

The man laughed but took the pen before leaning in to Russell and saying, “I need another one for my wife.”