Candidates’ Response to Covid Could Define Virginia’s Congressional Races

Congressman Bob Wittman, Delegate Nick Freitas and former Congressman Scott Taylor – pictured here via social media posts from their or other’s campaigns, are all vying for congressional seats in Virginia. (Collage via Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — It’s more difficult to find photos or videos of a majority of Virginia’s 2020 Republican congressional candidates out on the campaign trail wearing masks than not. Speaking to gatherings full of supporters — often packed with elderly citizens and with poor social distancing, one even at a buffet-style dinner — they hope to overcome the state’s history as the “home of the blue wave” despite guidelines from health officials as Virginia battles the coronavirus.

Delegate Nick Freitas, R-Culpepper, is among the most high profile GOP candidates in the once-bright red state. He’s running to unseat incumbent Democrat Abigail Spanberger for Virginia’s 7th District. In a phone interview, he told Courthouse News his campaign had been following CDC guidelines, but footage of him attending a late September rally for President Donald Trump in Newport News showed the candidate giving maskless fist pumps to supporters waiting outside. 

“I’m not sure where you’re referencing,” said Freitas when asked about the video, before clarifying the “vast majority of the time I was wearing the mask.” 

Other photos do show him wearing a mask, and he denied any concerns among his campaign staff about catching the virus. The president – who has long downplayed the outbreak, has publicly disparaged facial coverings and had shared a stage with Freitas during that Newport News rally – was diagnosed with coronavirus a little over a week later. 

“Republican politicians compete to be the most pro-Trump candidate and one of the ways to show loyalty is to minimize the use of masks in public,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “You see that at the president’s rallies and at Republican events around the commonwealth.”

State health officials told Courthouse News they have not linked any infections to Trump’s Virginia rally. 

Questions about mask wearing among Republican candidates come as the state reports over 167,000 cases and about 3,500 deaths. In a recent  Roanoke College poll, about 17% of Virginians are most worried about the virus, with the economy — invariably linked to the nation’s virus response — at first at 23%. 

And while the number of cases, deaths and hospitalizations looks to be on an upswing nationwide going into the colder winter months, a recent New York Times report put Virginia among a handful of states where the outbreak was better under control. 

“There are ebbs and flows in those case trends and I think some of that has to do with human behavior,” said Laurie Forlano, Deputy Commissioner for Population Health at the Virginia Department of Health. “ It’s hard to maintain some behaviors that are foreign for us: wearing a mask, keeping away from the people we love.”

Forlano said Virginia, like other states around the country, have seen peaks and plateaus as the virus spread. She pointed to particularly bad outbreaks along the coast in July, but said local leadership, along with Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s mask mandate, helped stem the tide. 

Northam, the country’s only governor with a past as a medical doctor, continues to get praise for his response with a recent Washington Post poll showing two out of three Virginians approve of his response. 

Back on the campaign trail Spanberger, now in her first campaign for reelection, said adjusting to campaigning in a pandemic has been as challenging as one can imagine.

“Good old fashioned parades and events, festivals — showing up places and talking to people,” she said in a phone interview, listing the usual outreach methods she misses most.

“While we’ve been successful at Zoom events and online forums, there’s less interest to come to those things,” she added.

Freitas has taken similar digital approaches with a new podcast

In Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, former Republican Congressman Scott Taylor is hoping to retake his seat from incumbent Democrat Representative Elaine Luria. That race has been hotly contested as the candidates, both U.S. Navy veterans, have traded insults and accusations on their legislative records.

Taylor’s campaign has been bogged down by an investigation linked to his 2017 race that, so far, has seen 3 former staff members indicted for or plead guilty to election fraud. 

John Beamer, the Roanoke-based special prosecutor brought in to oversee the case, stressed in early September that while Taylor hadn’t been charged with anything yet, his office was still looking into fake signatures collected by Taylor’s campaign members to benefit a third-party candidate.. 

“He’s part of the campaign and the whole campaign is under investigation,” Beamer told the Virginian-Pilot.

According to a poll released Wednesday by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, Taylor is lagging behind Luria by 7 points in the district as the incumbent is also garnering double-digit leads among female and college-educated voters, the poll showed.

“The enthusiasm that seems to be animating Democrats nationally is evident in this 2nd District race,” said Wason Center Research Director Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo who conducted the survey. “But the election fraud scandal of 2018 appears to be weighing Taylor down even beyond that.”

But you won’t see such polling — or investigations — slow the Republican candidate down. 

Instead his Twitter feed has several photos of him speaking to supporters and knocking on doors without a mask. 

Taylor and Luria’s campaigns did not return requests for comment for this story.

In Virginia’s 1st District, long-time incumbent Rob Whittman took time to meet, maskless, with constituents at a Hanover Republican Party event featuring a sneeze guard-free buffet dinner. 

In an email, a spokesperson for Wittman’s campaign said he “wore a mask except for when he was eating or speaking.” 

“I understand it is hard to tell from the photo, but he was standing more than six feet away from constituents while he was speaking,” they added. 

In an interview conducted before the maskless images were shared with Courthouse News, Wittman said he and his campaign were adhering to CDC guidelines and being forced to “rethink conventional methods” on the trail.  

His Democratic opponent, human rights lawyer Qasim Rashid, was among the first Democratic campaigns in the state to start hosting in-person events, but photos and conversations with the candidate show a more strict adherence to covid rules. 

“We made sure the protocols we followed were designed to keep us safe and secure,” he said in a phone interview. 

Wittman has since used photos of Rashid wearing a mask, but photoshopped with the logo of former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — another target of the Republican’s ire on the campaign trail over top of it — to discredit the candidate.  

“Disrespect for basic public health measures is a page out of Trump’s playbook,” Rashid said in an email following questions about the mailer.

Finally, in the state’s 5th District, businessman Bob Good can be seen maskless at a Fauquier County GOP event alongside Trump’s HUD Secretary Ben Carson at an event held in mid-October. 

Good, a former Associate Athletics Director at Liberty University, refused to respond to press requests. 

Good’s campaign started off on tense footing when he beat the more moderate incumbent, Republican Denver Riggleman, in a June convention. The nomination method gave power to the party’s most passionate members who, angry with Riggleman for officiating a same-sex wedding, tipped the scales in Good’s favor. 

That upset, fueled by backroom convention politics, struck a nerve among Republican voters in the otherwise red district, the incumbent top among them.

“You have to vote for what’s right, and I’m going to look for integrity first,” Riggleman told CNN in a recent interview before suggesting he’d vote for the Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen instead of President Trump. 

But Good’s far right politics will be welcome in a district dominated by his former employer; even if its former leader Jerry Falwell has fallen from grace

Dr. Cameron Webb is running on the left side of the ticket. He hopes the traditionally red district can turn blue thanks to party infighting and the hard edge of Good’s politics. 

But Webb relies on hope a lot these days — he works in the covid ward at the University of Virginia Medical Center. 

“My work is important in this pandemic and different from most campaigns,” said the candidate in an interview. “It’s given me insight and perspective into the virus.”

You’ll also struggle to find Webb not wearing a mask. 

But beyond treating covid patients, he has another unique line when he stumps: he used to work in the Trump administration. He started during Barack Obama’s final year in office as part of a fellowship program but stayed on through 2017 where he eventually worked with cabinet members on a drug pricing program. 

“I use Trump’s name every day,” he said of how that work history gets featured in his pitch to voters in the district which was drawn a decade ago to favor Republicans. “I worked in the White House for Trump and Obama and it speaks to who I am… Building consensus, not simply focusing on bitter partisanship.” 

And while we’ll have to wait till election day to see how important masks are to voters, campaign financial data offers some insight into who’s leading the horse race. 

Spanberger, Luria and Webb are all leading their Republican opponents by more than $3 million in these coveted final weeks according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Wittman is up over Rashid by about $500,000, over a million less than his 2018 opponent

But undoubtedly the coronavirus and Trump’s response will have an impact on the races. 

“You can be running in any congressional district in America and basically the conversation is about President Trump,” said Farnsworth, who theorized that will limit the individual messages of candidates on either side of the debate. Even the old practice of voting a split ticket seems to be fading in the time of Trump. 

The president lost Virginia by about 6 points in 2016 and every election since has been getting worse and worse for those on the right. Notably Corey Stewart, a hardline Trump supporter who went up against the state’s long-time Democratic Senator Time Kaine in 2018, lost by about 16 points. 

That Roanoke College poll released earlier this month put Trump 15 points below Biden.

“Voters are either voting for or against Republicans,” he added. “And this is a nationwide trend.” 

With over 1.8 million ballots already cast thanks to changes in election laws by the newly elected Democratic majority at the state’s General Assembly, turnout for this year’s election is expected to be at an all-time high. How that will shake out in the state’s congressional races will be learned after polls close on Election Day. 

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