What was expected to be a pretty predictable special election in Southwest Virginia has turned into a surprisingly intense fight in its closing days.
Voters in Virginia’s 38th Senate District will elect a new state senator through 2023 on Tuesday. Incumbent Ben Chafin died on Jan. 1 from complications related to COVID-19.
The district includes Bland, Buchanan, Dickenson, Pulaski, Russell and Tazewell counties, the cities of Norton and Radford, and portions of Montgomery, Smyth and Wise counties. That list includes some of the reddest territory in Virginia.
Republican Travis Hackworth, a Tazewell County supervisor with multiple businesses, won a six-way firehouse primary with candidates from across the district. He faces Democrat Laurie Buchwald, a nurse practitioner and two-term former city council member in Radford.
Demographically, the district’s stacked against Democrats. Chafin, a Republican, hadn’t been challenged by Democrats since the district’s last special election in 2014, which Chafin won 60 percent to 32 percent. In November, Donald Trump won three quarters of the district’s vote for president.
But the Democratic Party of Virginia has given $80,895 to Buchwald through March 11, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. As a previous elected official, member of a state-appointed board (the Board for Professional and Occupational Regulation) and unsuccessful 2015 state House of Delegates candidate, Buchwald has used the money to fuel a campaign based largely around health care, the pandemic and the distressed condition of the district’s schools and economy.
That surge of funding has put Republicans on the defensive. The Republican Party of Virginia gave Hackworth just $29,208 through early March — less than half of what the DPV gave to Buchwald. That left Hackworth to give $66,000 to his campaign from two of his own companies. On March 17, the RPV more than doubled its investment by giving $37,395 in postage and mailing expenses, for a total of $66,328.
As of March 11, Hackworth had raised $267,278 and Buchwald $163,794, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Whether because Democrats are investing in an attempt to pull a low-turnout special surprise or build their southwestern Virginia base in Roanoke and Blacksburg ahead of the regular fall House and statewide campaigns, the result has been a contentious race between Hackworth and Buchwald that’s played out largely through mailers and video ads.
Hackworth’s campaign has played up Buchwald’s status as a Democrat in a district where that tends to be a downside. The exchange has spotlighted political wedge issues like abortion, gun violence and militias in a state sharply divided along geographic and often overlapping partisan lines.
In interviews, both candidates claim to be taking the high road by talking about kitchen-table issues with broad support.
“Voters are really receptive,” said Hackworth. “When they find out I’m a business person, have been innovative, brought a new restaurant, bought and saved a compounding pharmacy that was about to go out. When they find out my track record and I’ve been in local government, twice elected to my seat, a man of faith — that resonates with a lot of folks.”
“I hear what people say to me about the concerns that they have, and that is going to be my focus,” Buchwald said. “Everyday issues people have: Is your health secure? Do you have food on the table? Is your kid getting an adequate education? Do you have a job? Do you have health insurance?”
The mailer and ad battle tell a different story, exposing a divided voter base that’s eager to think the worst of the opposing party.
“My camp has sent out eight mailers, and every one has focused on what I will do for the district,” Buchwald said. “I haven’t seen his, other than people sending pictures to me. I know his mailers are all about attacking me.”
A Hackworth ad spotlighted ad by Democratic blog Blue Virginia features a woman talking up Hackworth’s “pro-gun, pro-God” credentials while suggesting Buchwald is “going to be pro-abortion and she’s going to tax churches.”
Hackworth said the church claim came from a video of Buchwald’s first campaign trip to Richlands. His campaign provided an 8-second clip of a masked Buchwald saying, “I don’t think churches should be able to be just tax free for everything just because they’re a church. I think it needs to be looked at,” and a second, 26-second clip shows her talking about how the Radford city government faces challenges because “50 percent of our property is nontaxable because of churches and universities — churches that generate revenue by having childcare centers or what not, and of course the university.”
The abortion accusation stems largely from Buchwald’s long record as an advocate for women’s health, while building on viral videos of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax and Gov. Ralph Northam talking about failed legislation that would have eased some restrictions around late-term abortion that were weaponized by the GOP during the 2019 campaign.
Buchwald said Hackworth is misrepresenting her stances, and trying to deflect real voter concerns to instead make the race about wedge issues.
“Living in the community, nobody comes to my office talking about guns,” Buchwald said. “But every day someone asks for contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies. Someone asks about finding a job.”
Hackworth dismissed the criticism.
“They’re saying that because they’re scared,” Hackworth said. “They know they’re going to lose. That’s rhetoric because if you’re ever at one of my campaign rallies or speeches, I talk very little about national issues. If you’re Republican, you’re pro-gun, pro-life, pro-Trump. I get that out of the way — I’m for all of that — but then, let’s talk jobs.”
The injection of the Democratic money into the 38th District special election seems like a longshot, but special election turnout tends to be dismal. There also loom potentially competitive House of Delegates and statewide races later in 2021. At the very least, the challenge has put Hackworth in more of a defensive stance, and pushed Republicans to spend more money in return.
Tellingly, Buchwald’s campaign manager is Andrew Whitley, executive director of the DPV and a longtime resident of Smyth County, which makes up a small part of the 38th District, although not the section where he grew up. Whitley said Democrats’ expenditure on the race represents both a shot at winning the special, as well as sending a signal to southwestern Virginia and rural Democrats generally.
“We didn’t lose rural Virginia overnight, and we’re not going to win it overnight,” Whitley said. “The way we do win it back is by investing and showing voters we care.”
The state of the race also worries some Republicans hoping for a more energetic performance from their candidate.
“What troubles me about Supervisor Hackworth’s campaign is that it lacks the crescendo of a usual campaign,” said Matt Colt Hall, a Roanoke-based Republican blogger. “He isn’t amping up the emotion. He’s running a cookie-cutter Southwest Virginia campaign for a Republican. Republicans will vote for him, but they aren’t excited about it. Of course, Supervisor Hackworth will become Senator Hackworth, no question. My hope is that soon-to-be Senator Hackworth amps up the energy and the tempo soon.”
At stake is a state Senate seat that’s played an outsized role in Virginia politics for more than a decade, especially on the once-charged issue of Medicaid expansion. Republican Chafin’s predecessor was Democrat Phil Puckett, a banker who himself won the seat in a 1998 special election.
The last half of Puckett’s tenure saw the chamber closely divided, with the conservative Democrat providing a crucial swing vote. In 2014, amid a hard-fought argument over whether to expand Medicaid as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, Puckett abruptly resigned his seat, essentially handing it and a chamber majority to Republicans.
Four years later, Chafin became one of four senate Republicans to break with their party and vote to expand Medicaid. Chafin joined a majority of House Republicans, then in control of the chamber, who endorsed expansion as a means to help constituents in a part of the state that’s seen ongoing economic distress and a steady loss of residents.
At the same time, localities in the 38th District have also been not just a participant but a driver in both the so-called 2nd Amendment Sanctuary and the militia movements that have swept parts of Virginia since Democrats won General Assembly majorities in 2019. Tazewell County, where Hackworth is a supervisor, earned headlines for both, including resolutions not just to become a 2nd Amendment Sanctuary but to tacitly support a local militia.
Hackworth said he stands behind his record. But he said he’s also willing to cross party lines, saying that he’s supported Medicaid expansion as a means of stopping rural hospital closures, including in Southwest Virginia.
“If Medicaid expansion had not taken place, doors would have shut,” Hackworth said. “Imagine Richlands without a hospital; it would not be pretty. I don’t like what Medicaid expansion does to Virginia as a whole, but for Southwest Virginia it was critical until we got Obamacare and the craziness with the PBMs [pharmacy benefit managers] and reimbursement sorted out.”
Buchwald also advocated for Medicaid expansion and more options for patients. Again, these two special election candidates agree on the issue, but not how best to represent the 38th district’s constituents.
Voters decide Tuesday who’s the best fit.