- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2017

BLACKSBURG Va.| Looking to loosen the GOP’s grip on southwest Virginia, Democrats are betting that a baby-faced progressive from the Philadelphia suburbs can give the party something they haven’t had in years: a seat in the House of Delegates west of Roanoke.

Chris Hurst, a television anchor turned candidate, is running in the 12th District to unseat Republican Del. Joseph R. Yost, a popular moderate Republican who has held the seat since 2011, leads a local historical society and has received the endorsement from the Virginia Education Association, which typically endorses Democrats.

The seat is the best pick-up opportunity in the area for Democrats, who have seen their brand in rural parts of the state — and the country as a whole — suffer in recent years.

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They hope that if they can make headway here in next month’s election, it will set them up for a major push to retake the General Assembly in future years.

“It would be a huge thing for Chris to win,” said Steven Cochran, a member of the Democratic National Committee who has been active in local politics here for over four decades. “I remember many years ago the entire delegation from southwest Virginia was Democratic. The coal miners voted for Democrats, the union workers voted for Democrats and, unfortunately, over the last several years we have allowed Republicans to take over that voter base, and I think that it is very contrary to their own best interests.”

Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, the westernmost Democrat in the House of Delegates, said he could use an ally.

“I look forward to doubling the size of the southwest Democratic caucus,” Mr. Rasoul said. “Being a caucus of one gets pretty lonely out here.”

While the state Senate is narrowly divided, with Republicans holding a 21-19 advantage, the House is more lopsided, with the GOP controlling 66 of the 100 seats.

But the 12th District plays to the strengths of both parties, combining the older, whiter and more conservative rural areas in and around the GOP stronghold of Giles County with the younger, more diverse and liberal areas in and around Virginia Tech University.

President Obama won the region in 2012, as did Sen. Tim Kaine in his victorious re-election race against Republican George Allen. Gov. Terry McAuliffe bested Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the 2013 governor’s race, and Sen. Mark R. Warner carried it in his re-election win over Republican Ed Gillespie in 2014.

Last year Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump here by a 500-vote margin.

Mr. Yost, though, has expanded his margin of victory in every election since winning, including in 2015, when he defeated Laurie Buchwald by almost 17 percentage points.

Democrats believe Mr. Hurst can end Mr. Yost’s winning streak.

The 30-year-old gained local celebrity as an award-winning reporter and television news anchor at the local CBS affiliate in Roanoke.

In a horrific turn of events, he became part of the news in 2015 when Allison Parker, his girlfriend and fellow reporter at the station, was gunned down along with cameraman Adam Ward on live morning television by a disgruntled co-worker.

Mr. Hurst has since moved into a basement apartment in the 12th District, left his job earlier this year to launch his political career and outraised Mr. Yost by almost $100,000, according to a breakdown from Virginia Public Access Project.

Accompanied by his late girlfriend’s brother at a recent campaign stop, Mr. Hurst said he is running to make sure that no part of the district is going to be “left untouched by the platform and values of the Democratic Party.”

He vowed to support legislative efforts to curb gun violence, reshape the state’s education funding formula so struggling schools get more money and expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

“I stand on the shoulders of so many other people who have tried to make sure that we can move that big blue flag from Roanoke and plant it right here in the New River Valley,” Mr. Hurst told supporters at a recent campaign stop with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam. “And I hope to be the shoulders for somebody else one day who is going to continue to move it to other parts of Southwest Virginia and reclaim our Democratic values in others places.”

Donald Rickard, the Yost campaign manager, portrayed Mr. Hurst as a carpetbagger.

“It is amazing that the Democrats only hope of electing a Democrat in the 12th District is a candidate who is not from here and registered to vote in the district the day he announced his campaign, versus Delegate Yost, who has lived within the bounds of the 12th District his entire life,” Mr. Rickard said. “Chris Hurst does not represent the values of rural Virginia and is being funded by out-of-state billionaires who want to bring their extreme agendas to the New River Valley.”

Democrats statewide say they are targeting 17 House seats held by Republicans where Mrs. Clinton won the most votes in last year’s presidential election, but Republicans said that’s impossible.

John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said by recruiting challengers against every GOP incumbent, they’ve awakened the party.

“They have made our job easier by lighting a fire under all of our incumbents, and I actually think they would have taken more seats if they had not run all these people,” he said.

Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said Democrats should consider a strong showing netting somewhere near 10 seats, and said most of those gains would likely come in Northern Virginia, not the southwest.

He said the race in the 12th District race is a “toss-up” but is an outlier for the region.

“Outside of that district and the city of Roanoke, the rest of that part of the state is very Republican, and I don’t see an obvious path for Democrats to make a comeback,” he said. “Democrats need to change things in their platform or hope the Republican brand becomes so toxic that people are open to an alternative, and honestly, I think that is a more likely outcome than some sort of new economic pitch that overcomes cultural conservatism.”

Mr. Rasoul, who resigned from his post in Democratic leadership to protest the party’s lackluster rural outreach efforts in the wake of the 2016 election, also warned against reading too much into the outcome of the race, saying Democrats must move away from identity politics and make lasting connections with voters in the region.

“I think Chris has just been able to bring a lot of energy. Couple that with the mounting frustration people are having with the White House, and I think it is a great time to be running in that district,” he said. “I don’t think the party has learned. It just so happens that that area anchored by Virginia Tech has been kind of a toss-up for a little while.”


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