In Virginia's coal country, a Democratic challenger makes his case to Trump voters
By Greg Schneider, Washington Post
— Retired coal miner Dean Vance voted for Donald Trump, thinks the president is doing a good job and believes coal will make a comeback.
But to represent him in Congress, Vance, 62, is supporting a Democrat: Anthony Flaccavento, who is running a long-shot campaign to unseat a Republican incumbent in one of the reddest districts anywhere.
Virginia’s 9th District is in the far southwest, the Appalachian toe of the state. Trump won the district by 41 points in 2016, and Rep. H. Morgan Griffith won his fourth term that year by more than 39 percentage points.
This year, Flaccavento is among a subset of Democrats trying to reconnect with voters in largely rural areas. Unlike the anti-Trump “resisters” in other parts of Virginia and the country, these Democrats are attempting to blur the partisan divide and make a populist appeal to voters who feel disaffected.
“Folks are hungry for somebody who’s going to listen to them,” Flaccavento said. “I’m not looking for some sort of lukewarm middle that cuts between Democrat and Republican. I’m looking for some sort of bold stance that will appeal to people of both parties.”
By some measures, it’s working. Between July and October, Flaccavento raised more than twice as much money as Griffith — $619,108 to $276,156.
Contributions to Flaccavento were almost entirely from individual donors, while more than half of Griffith’s were from political action committees, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. In a rural, mountainous district that’s nearly as large as the state of Maryland, Flaccavento has hit all 22 counties and held 100 town hall meetings, drawing hundreds of people even in remote hamlets.
Both Flaccavento and Jennifer Lewis, another Democrat running a similar campaign in the neighboring 6th Congressional District, are operating largely outside the Democratic Party apparatus.
Lewis, running in a district that stretches from Lynchburg up through the Shenandoah Valley, is taking on Republican Ben Cline for the seat being vacated by longtime Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte. Trump won the 6th District by 24 points, and Cline has a 3-to-1 fundraising advantage.
A first-time candidate, Lewis believes she has found an issue — opposition to a massive natural gas pipeline — that defies partisan stereotypes.
“Ultimately, the challenge for Democrats in terms of presidential politics is to be more competitive in rural areas,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “In many ways Trump’s victory speaks to the extent to which many former Democrats feel like today’s party doesn’t connect with them.”
Even if Flaccavento and Lewis fail, Farnsworth said, the effort to reconnect in Virginia’s vast rural countryside demonstrates the clarifying effect of the 2016 national loss. “There’s a lot to be learned,” he said, “when you get your butt kicked.”
Standing for the little guys
Flaccavento parks his Prius outside the Glenrochie Country Club in Abingdon next to a Ford F-150 truck with a “Coal Country” sticker on it. He’s here to talk to the Kiwanis club about economic disparity.
While two dozen local business people eat pasta and salad, Flaccavento runs through PowerPoint slides that could be provocative if he weren’t such a familiar figure to his audience.
As the nation’s population grew by 42 percent between 1980 and 2016, gross domestic product nearly tripled, he tells them. At the same time, median income and real wages stagnated. So average Americans became much more productive and didn’t get rewarded for it.
Flaccavento says the problem is that politicians are aligned with the interests of the powerful. “Republicans and Democrats alike are mostly wed to the idea of trickle-down,” he tells the group.
Even judging the economy by gross domestic product is a distortion, he says, because all it captures is the amount of resources flowing through to big corporations. By that yardstick, an individual contributes more to the economy when being treated for heart problems or diabetes than when buying groceries, he says.
Flaccavento’s prescription is to focus on the power of small and local business. Community banks, farm markets, mom and pop. They need access to capital, light regulation and a trained workforce.
He says he stands for the little guy vs. “Big Forces” — a formula with a long history in this struggling region.
Born in New York, Flaccavento grew up in Baltimore and earned college degrees in agriculture and economic and social development. He came to Virginia’s Wise County in the mid-1980s to run the Appalachian Office of Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.
He stayed in the area and eventually started a small organic farm and a consulting firm, helping others build sustainable businesses.
All that time, Flaccavento said, he thought he was improving society from the bottom up. Now, at 61, he wonders how much he has really accomplished. So he decided to run for Congress. He tried once before, in 2012, challenging Griffith after the incumbent’s first term. Flaccavento raised little money and got whipped.
This time he’s methodical — started earlier, put his other businesses on hold. It’s not a completely crazy quest: The district was represented by a Democrat for 27 years, until former congressman Rick Boucher lost to Griffith in 2010.
Flaccavento got a warm reception at the Kiwanis club, where many already knew him. “The most delicious melons I ever had in my life came from his farm,” former local Republican chairman Bob Copeland said.
But will they vote for him?
“I think we have two really great candidates,” Copeland said.
An energized GOP base
Griffith, 60, was majority leader in the Virginia House of Delegates before unseating Boucher. He’s a lawyer from Salem, near Roanoke, at the upper end of the district, far from coal country.
“In the 9th District we believe in our gun rights, we’re pro-life and we really don’t like the federal government coming in here with a few dollars telling us how to run our lives,” Griffith said.
While there are blue pockets, including college towns such as Blacksburg and Radford, Griffith stressed that those are specks in the sprawling district. “It is four hours from my house to D.C. and four hours from my house to the other end of the district,” he said.
Griffith has built a reputation for the kind of fine-grained constituent services that include mailing letters when residents win awards or celebrate big birthdays. But he’s also taken hits for not being present enough in some of the distant hamlets and hollows.
That has become an issue in debates with Flaccavento, who touts his grueling listening tour of 100 town hall meetings. Griffith cited a series of telephone town-hall meetings, which in one debate drew jeers from the audience.
Griffith said his support for Trump is the bottom line in a district where the president remains popular. He paints Flaccavento as “an articulate spokesman for the left” and says the Democrat’s support for Medicare-for-all would usher in the kind of big government that draws scorn in that part of the state.
“Of course, Anthony doesn’t want to talk about Trump,” Griffith said. “He’s got to try to convince people that somehow putting him in Congress won’t be a negative for President Trump.”
At the same time, Griffith said anti-Trump fervor is the explanation for Flaccavento’s unexpectedly strong fundraising.
“I think he’s tapped into some real feelings — with Trump and with the fact that because there’s so much energy, some of the folks have gone to meetings and thought, ‘Oh, we can actually win this thing,’ ” Griffith said. “And so people who used to give [Democrats] $20 are giving $200, and people that used to give $200 are giving $2,700.”
But he said Trump supporters got a similar jolt of motivation by the contentious hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
“The biggest fear we had early in this campaign was that our people would stay home and all the Democrats would turn out,” Griffith said. “Now my base is energized. They’re fired up and ready to go.”
Coal country politics
The challenge for Flaccavento and Lewis in the neighboring 6th District is tapping into the president’s anti-establishment appeal and getting voters to look past party identification.
For Lewis, that has meant leveraging the issue of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a major natural gas project that has outraged environmentalists and property rights advocates.
Lewis has canvassed throughout the “blast zone” of the pipeline project, the area that would be affected by a catastrophic failure.
Some residents want to talk about the pipeline or her experience as a mental-health worker, but on a recent weekday morning in the community of Stuart’s Draft, a significant number asked her party affiliation and then shut the door.
That kind of reaction has led Democrats to shy away from these parts of Virginia, especially in statewide contests. Other than support from Sen. Tim Kaine, who as he runs for reelection has made a point of working for Democrats in every district, Flaccavento and Lewis have gotten few resources from the party.
“In statewide elections, Democrats have simply written off this part of the state,” said Harry L. Wilson, chair of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
Flaccavento’s ability to raise so much money on his own — about $1 million — “is really interesting,” Wilson said. “I think that means some people think he has a shot.”
Coal makes dynamics different in the 9th District than in other red parts of the state. “There is a long history of conflict between miners and mine companies,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee who has lived and worked extensively in Appalachia.
Republicans were seen as friendlier to the companies, while organized labor supported Democratic candidates. But many individuals turned to Trump in 2016, Shipley said, especially after Hillary Clinton made disparaging remarks about the future of coal.
Today, he said, the Democratic Party is too far to the left to appeal to the majority of people in coal country.
Frank Kilgore, a lawyer and local historian in Wise County, said, “The only way the [Democratic] Party will regain rural votes is to forget California Democrats and go back to what used to be the party for working people and low- or middle-
Kilgore, who usually votes Republican and has known Flaccavento for 20 years, said he counseled his friend that the time might not be right for him to win. “But you know, sometimes you’re wrong,” he said. “I was wrong about Hillary — I thought she was going to win. And nobody anticipated the big blue wave in Virginia last year, either.”
He was referring to 2017, when Democrats who had been given little chance of winning unseated Republicans in 15 House of Delegates districts in the eastern part of the state.
Kilgore’s sister and office manager, Jean Kilgore, believes people are ready for change and has been helping Flaccavento. “Here in our area . . . for every one Griffith sign, you’ll see 10 or 12 for Flaccavento — I mean, it’s just astonishing,” she said.
On a recent week night, Flaccavento met with miners in the village of Oakwood, at a respiratory clinic near a coal plant along Dismal Creek. It was a gathering of the local chapter of the Black Lung Association, so far out near Kentucky that when one miner asked Flaccavento how his prospects looked in “Northern Virginia,” he was referring to Blacksburg.
The local United Mine Workers of America members have endorsed Flaccavento. Many remember him from his days with the Office of Justice and Peace, when he stood alongside them in the Pittston Coal strike of 1989 and 1990.
“He supports us on health care, pensions, black lung, expanding Medicaid — basically every issue,” said Donnie Farmer, 59, president of UMWA Local 2232.
Dean Vance, the president of the Black Lung Association chapter who also supports Trump, said he believes Griffith and other politicians in Congress favor the big companies while Flaccavento stands with the miners.
“I think he’s gonna carry the coal fields,” Vance said.
But is that enough?
“I’ll be honest with you,” Flaccavento said, when some of the miners asked him that question.
“A lot of the rank and file [around the district], they’re loving on Donald Trump and they’re hating on Democrats. . . . I feel pretty good about how we’re doing in the coal fields, but I know we’ve got to do well everywhere.”