Democrats vow to ride ‘blue wave’ onto Capitol Hill
Cockburn: ‘It’s not a normal year. It’s not a normal time’
The heat was collectively cranked up on Republican Rep. Tom Garrett during last Saturday’s 5th District Candidate Forum in Rappahannock County, with three participating Democratic congressional hopefuls vowing to band together to unseat the incumbent “mini-Trump.”
“I got into this for a number of reasons, but the biggest was Donald Trump,” said Leslie Cockburn, one of two apparent frontrunners heading into next month’s caucuses. “And going up against Tom Garrett we’re going up against a mini-Trump.”
The veteran journalist, who makes her home in Rappahannock, didn’t stop there in her criticism of the Republican Party and its leader.
“Our position in the world is being eroded very, very, very fast,” Cockburn warned. “There are many people in the rest of the world who think we’re actually insane. It’s true. And I mean it on every level.”
All three Democrats vying for their party’s 5th district nomination — Roger Dean “RD” Huffstetler, Ben Cullop, and Cockburn — pledged at the Businesses of Rappahannock/Rappahannock News-sponsored forum, moderated by Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan, that win or lose in the caucuses they will regroup to ensure that a Democrat is sent to Capitol Hill.
“Yes, 100 percent,” assured Huffstetler, a Charlottesville entrepreneur and the other top contender based on fundraising success and polling. “The mission of everybody here on stage is to make sure that Tom Garrett is a one term congressman.”
Cullop, an investment associate in Albemarle County, concurred: “I put myself at the service of the eventual nominee.”
“This is a very critical time for our country,” Cockburn pointed out. “We are in danger right now of losing our democracy. It’s not a normal year. It’s not a normal time. We have a chance right now — 2018, this year — we have a chance to flip the House of Representatives.
“The Republicans expect us to do it,” she added to audience laughter at the Little Washington Theatre, “so let’s not disappoint them.”
Backing out of the Rappahannock forum was Andrew Sneathern, the fourth and final Democrat seeking his party’s nod to challenge Garrett. Sneathern’s campaign explained that the candidate chose to join his children at that afternoon’s March for Our Lives gun control rally in Charlottesville. The other three candidates earlier attended the larger March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.
That said, for whichever Democrat is ultimately nominated the ensuing battle against the freshman Republican won’t be easy.
The largest of all Virginia’s congressional districts, which includes Rappahannock County, the 5th district has historically leaned Republican. In the 2016 general election, Garrett handily defeated Democrat Jane Dittmar, capturing 58.2 percent of the vote (207,758 to 148,339). With his victory, Garrett filled the seat of retiring three-term GOP Rep. Robert Hurt, who in his final 2014 campaign knocked off Democratic challenger Lawrence Gaughan with 61 percent of the vote.
The last Democrat to win the district — redrawn unfairly, Democrats contend, by the Republican-led Virginia State Legislature in 2011 — was in 2008, when Tom Perriello defeated incumbent Virgil H. Goode, albeit by a razor-thin margin of 727 votes (158,810 to 158,083).
Still, the trio who took the stage here last Saturday insisted that this November’s mid-term election will have a different outcome for the Democratic party.
“It takes three things for a Democrat to win in the 5th District,” Cullop told the crowd. “It takes the right candidate, I think it takes a ‘blue wave,’ and I think it takes a weak incumbent . . .
“Tom Garrett’s given us a lot of material to work with,” he said. “Let’s just take his 2017 [record] as an example. He started the year by voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and [in doing so] rip healthcare away from 23 million Americans without a replacement. He ended the year by voting for this disastrous tax reform — cut, plan, shenanigans, call it whatever you want — with Donald Trump.
“And in the middle of the year he had a meeting in his congressional office with neo-Nazis and white supremacists who organized the Charlottesville rally. So his body of work has given us ample opportunities to take him on.”
While Democrats still aren’t buying it, Garrett has insisted that he didn’t know Jason Kessler was a white nationalist leader when he met with him in his Capitol Hill office last March.
“[W]hat I’m telling you is I didn’t know who that cat was at that point in time,” Garrett told Roll Call. “I know who he is now, and I don’t like him any more than anyone else does.”
Garrett added that he’s been condemning Kessler’s actions and views since the deadly Charlottesville rally and he regrets the Capitol Hill meeting, the publication reported.
He explained that he regularly hosts meetings with constituents, but it’s not clear how his office missed Kessler’s white supremacy background.
As for a “blue wave” crashing into red territory and reenergizing Democrats to the extent that they flock to the polls in November, Cullop described an “energy that we are seeing on the ground everywhere we go . . . across the entire district, and that should make us all excited.”
Cockburn is also relying on some GOP crossover voters, recalling that at one of her recent campaign event sin Fauquier County half of the attendees were Republican.
“In terms of this campaign there is no question that there is huge excitement in the district,” she said. “We’ve had standing room only meet-and-greets in counties where people just have never come out. In Lunenburg, in Brunswick, in Mecklenburg — the people are there, they’re energized, and they’re asking really great questions. This is a very different year. And I think Tom Garrett is very vulnerable.”
As for being the rare female congressional candidate, Cockburn told the crowd: “For me and my campaign it is a great year for women. We have now an army of volunteers, and they are women, and they are angry, and they are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”
Cockburn acknowledged that the “gerrymandered” 5th district will be “tough” for any Democrat in the November election, but she pointed out that what only recently was labeled as safely Republican “is now regarded as a swing district.”
All three candidates cited, as example, Democrat Conor Lamb’s still unofficial victory earlier this month in Pennsylvania, flipping a congressional district that Trump won in 2016 by nearly 20 percentage points. Nevertheless, it was an uphill battle for Lamb, who at last review defeated GOP challenger Rick Saccone by 758 votes.
Much of the Rappahannock forum surrounded a wide-range of issues, specific as they can be to a district that stretches through 21 counties from the North Carolina border almost to Maryland: healthcare, employment, agriculture, the environment, drug abuse, stricter gun control, and broadband.
Still, the only perceived moment of friction was when Huffstetler and Cockburn, who appear to be neck and neck going into the caucuses, were discussing individual campaign fundraising.
Huffstetler announced that his campaign had just crossed the $1 million threshold in contributions, which he said “outpaced every other candidate in the race,” including the incumbent Garrett.
Of nearly 4,000 individual contributions, Huffstetler added that more than 80 percent were $100 or less, while over 60 percent were $25 or less.
Countered Cockburn when taking her turn at the podium: “We outraised everyone here last [fourth] quarter, including Tom Garrett. And the average donation — 56 percent were $100 or less, so that’s a very good sign. So we too have a grassroots movement.”
During the Q&A portion of the forum, an older gentleman in the audience took the discussion outside the 5th district — and country for that matter. “Is the United States of America still the leader of the free world?” he wondered.
Huffstetler, a U.S. Marine veteran who was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan (he later attended graduate school with the help of the GI Bill) was eager to respond.
“William Henry Huffstetler was part of the ranger battalions that landed at D-Day, my grandfather,” he began. “And he and his generation, the ‘Greatest Generation,’ were able to free a continent and destroy an evil ideology that set up America as the beacon of hope for the entire world. And we’ve been fortunate, generation upon generation, to hand that to each other and say, ‘You know what, this is our job.’ When things aren’t going well in other places America steps up, we’re that city on the hill; we shine our values everywhere on the planet.
“There is nothing more disturbing about the Trump administration than the fact that that’s amiss right now,” Huffstetler continued. “His [Trump’s] election, his rhetoric, his divisiveness, his rejection of the idea that Americans should be that beacon to the whole world, is a threat. Not just to the world, but to us, so that we forget who we are in the process. And we can’t allow that to happen. We have to continue to talk about our country as the place we’re building together, where everyone is included.”
Cockburn similarly recalled that her grandfather earned a Silver Star as a Marine fighting in World War 1, while her father was an Army officer in World War 2. From a career capacity, the candidate herself covered wars from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia and Cambodia.
“Everybody in my family believes in service,” she said. “I think part of the reason I spent 35 years as a journalist was because I believe in not only defending truth but in giving a voice to the voiceless and holding people accountable.”
Her fear today, she said, is knowing that foreign policy can “get off course very easily. . . . This is a very, very dangerous time. And it’s important that if you send someone to Capitol Hill that that person has experience with these things, whether it be understanding Iran, or understanding North Korea. . . . We need to keep on the right course.”
Editor’s note: The forum held in Rappahannock County featured only Democratic candidates who are seeking their party’s nomination to run in the general election against incumbent Republican Rep. Tom Garrett, who had no primary challengers. Every effort will be made by the Rappahannock News to host a similar forum in advance of the Nov. 6 election, featuring Garrett and his ultimate Democratic challenger. Visit here for unedited video of the event.