A False Alarm in Virginia

By Jim Ellis

Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Scottsville/Charlottesville)

Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Scottsville/Charlottesville)

May 29, 2018 — The news media was filled with stories last week that freshman Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Scottsville/Charlottesville) was about to announce his retirement. And Late last week, Rep. Garrett fueled such talk in telling the media that he would hold a news conference to address his status. But the speculation proved overblown when Garrett clarified, in what was described as a long and rambling news availability, that he will seek a second term in the fall.

Rep. Garrett, who parted ways with his chief of staff last week and who is not known for being an aggressive fundraiser, partially fed into the idea that he would not seek re-election. Through April 8, Garrett had only $133,275 in his campaign account. Observers invariably drew a comparison with his Democratic opponent, journalist Leslie Cockburn. She has raised more than $715,000 but only has $271,113 remaining. Cockburn does have the wherewithal to self-fund her campaign to a significant degree, however.

Before the Garrett retirement flap, Democrats were looking at this race as a second-tier potential target. Garrett won the 2016 election with 58 percent of the vote against Albemarle County Supervisor Jane Dittmar, another Democratic candidate who was originally believed to be competitive and did, in fact, spend over $1.3 million on her campaign.

Additionally, in the same election, President Trump recorded a 53-42 percent victory margin over Hillary Clinton, which proved a stronger performance than Mitt Romney’s 52-46 percent spread against President Obama, and when Sen. John McCain topped then-Sen. Barack Obama 52-47 percent back in 2008.

Virginia’s 5th District occupies 19 central-south state counties and parts of two others. It also includes the cities of Charlottesville and Danville. Beginning at the Virginia-North Carolina border, the 5th drives north well past Interstate 66, and close to the town of Middleburg in northern Virginia. In addition to the aforementioned cities, the district also includes the South Boston, Appomattox, and Warrenton communities.

VA-5 had been a solid southern Democratic seat for decades until then-Rep. Virgil Goode, first elected as a Democrat in 1996, switched to the Republicans in 2002 after becoming an interim Independent in 2000. The seat reverted back to the Democrats for one term in 2008, when Tom Perriello unseated Rep. Goode in a very close vote in the first Obama election. Republican Bob Hurt subsequently defeated Rep. Perriello in 2010, and served three terms. Garrett succeeded him in 2016.

Candidate Cockburn, running in opposition to Garrett, is a former award-winning journalist who covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Colombia, Cambodia, and Central America, among other assignments as a producer for CBS News’ 60 Minutes. She and her husband, Harper’s magazine Washington editor Andrew Cockburn, are the parents of actress Olivia Wilde and two other adult offspring.

Though this district has become reliably Republican, the latest attention drawn to the current race while fielding a strong Democratic challenger suggests that VA-5 will move up on the party target list.

We will likely be hearing more about this developing campaign as the election cycle progresses, but the pertinent voting history still suggests a Democratic nominee must overcome consistent conservative trends in order to actually win the seat in November. At least for now, and assuming he immediately begins to improve his campaign apparatus, Rep. Garrett should still be viewed as the favorite to win re-election come Nov. 6.

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