Anthony Flaccavento is a thinker and a doer. He is also the progressive Democratic nominee in Virginia’s 9th Congressional District.
His candidacy represents a glimmer of hope for Democrats that they could eek out a victory in a district that is currently considered, by most measures, soundly red.
The “fighting 9th” is comprised of 23 counties in the southwestern-most portion of Virginia, but has largely been ignored by the national media.
The ten most-southwestern counties in the district, particularly those along the border with Kentucky and West Virginia, are rated by the Appalachian Regional Commission as economically “distressed” or “at risk.”
But the 9th District is larger than New Jersey, with a mostly rural population of just over 700,000 people who are, on average, older, poorer and have suffered more from drug epidemics than their counterparts in the region and beyond. The coal counties and the district’s northwest have experienced intense economic decline, while the southeastern tip enjoys some degree of economic prosperity, tied to a $1 billion outdoor recreational tourism economy, universities and the healthcare industry.
This election is Flaccavento’s second bid for Congress. His first attempt was in 2012. Some conditions have changed for Flaccavento since that race, like an earlier campaign start and a clearer strategy, more money and name recognition, and a more energized Democratic Party, but on the face of it, now as then, Flaccavento’s task seems hopeless.
Donald Trump won 68 percent of the district’s vote in 2016, with support in some counties above 80 percent. Since 1964, the 9th has opted for Republican presidential candidates in every general election, even when represented by a Democrat in the House. Larry Saboto’s Crystal Ball, a newsletter published by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia that is often cited nationally, indicates the House race is safely Republican. And, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has taken cues from these trends and offered Flaccavento little to no help in his campaign.
But the race in Virginia’s 9th District is more complicated than it seems on its face. The Democratic Party has held the seat in Congress for 62 of the last 88 years, since 1930. Only intermittently and for relatively short periods of time have Republicans controlled the 9th. The district was solidly Democratic for nearly three decades before the Tea Party wave in 2010, which pushed out incumbent Rick Boucher and ushered in the current Republican office holder, Morgan Griffith.
Every incumbent in the 9th over the past 65 years was unseated because of their re-election bid rather than through retirement.
The 9th District saw a “pretty stable shift right” in the Obama era, said Dr. Jason Kelly, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech. Today, the district is more polarized and has moved closer to Griffith, not left toward Flaccavento, Kelly said.
That shift has not occurred in a vacuum. Research shows that a national Republican shift farther to the right has been even more pronounced than liberals’ slow creep further left, but still, Dr. Bob Denton, chair of the Department of Communication at Virginia Tech, said nationally, Democrats of previous eras “were very different.” Democrats today are more liberal, he said.
But a lot depends on who votes.
Congressman Griffith campaigned in 2010 on issues that tapped into Tea Party anger, especially opposition to national debt, Obama, House Minority leader (then Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and the icons and policies of the liberal Democratic establishment that were unpopular in the 9th. He also talked about lower taxes and smaller government, which are ideological points that appeal to people in the district, even if those same people benefit from government spending on social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicaid.
Griffith also painted himself as a big supporter of the coal industry, which is key to any politician trying to connect with voters in the 9th and he had real conservative credentials after serving nearly two decades in the Virginia House of Delegates— 10 of those years as majority leader— along with a well-established political machine.
But since his election, Griffith has courted controversy, especially with constituents who were angry and scared after Trump’s election.
Griffith did not hold or attend town hall meetings, as did many other Republicans in the state of Virginia. But many of those events were organized by a local progressive group, Indivisible, which formed in reaction to the 2016 election. Griffith’s absence did not seem to worry his supporters. In fact, Griffith characterized some town halls as attempts to “embarrass” Republicans.
Instead, Griffith has a traveling staff that holds office hours around the district.
Griffith has spent the majority of his time campaigning in the westernmost sections of the district and the commonwealth, according to Denton. He holds conference calls with core Republican constituents, but has not reached out to voters beyond the conservative center, Denton said.
Flaccavento is not a party-line politician. He’s a Democrat, but highly critical of the liberal establishment that has cozied up to wealthy donors and corporate interests at the expense of ordinary, rural voters. He also thinks the Republican leadership has gone mad.
For 30 years, Flaccavento has been an organic farmer on the outskirts of Abingdon, the Washington County seat. He established and worked as the executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Development, a nonprofit focused on the cultivation of bottom up economic opportunities in southwest Virginia, created Abingdon Organics, a certified organic small farm on 7 acres and wrote “Building a Healthy Economy from the Bottom Up,” a book that combines a little bit of theory with a plethora of real-world examples of bottom up economic growth from Appalachia and across the U.S.
He says he is motivated to run for office by the same progressive ideals that moved his campaign in 2012, which is a message of widespread prosperity based on “bottom-up” rather than corporate-focused “trickle-down” economics.
“First and foremost, my litmus test is what does this do for working folks and everyday people,” Flaccavento said.
This election is more important than ever, according to Flaccavento, because of the Trump administration’s recently approved tax cut bill– one that provided large cuts to the corporate net income tax and only temporary relief for the middle class.
“I’m not one of those Democrats running to stop Trump,” Flaccavento said. Instead, he wants to give voice to his economic and agricultural ideas in Congress and build a “more prosperous society.”
Denton believes Flaccavento is running a better race this year than he did in his first bid for Congress in 2012.
Even endorsements of Griffith have been less than definitive in their support for him, including one from the Bristol Herald Courier that called it’s support “conditional.” Griffith voted in favor of the administration’s tax cuts, even though the Congressional Budget Office estimated they will balloon national debt by $1.9 trillion dollars over the next decade, which Griffith said he was opposed to. He’s advocated to raise the age future retirees can access Social Security and he has voted to end the Affordable Care Act, which increased access to healthcare in poor, rural communities like the ones he represents.
Flaccavento supports progressive policies like a higher minimum wage pegged to the cost of living, a Medicare For All program and a removal of the cap on Social Security income taxes so that higher income earners pay more.
Flaccavento’s message has actually caught traction with donors. Between July and September, Flaccavento raised twice as much campaign money as Griffith, although Griffith still has more total funding in his campaign war chest. Most of Griffith’s contributions came from outside political action committees, while 97 percent of Flaccavento’s donation s have come from individual donors, 69 percent of which are from Virginia.
In addition to small cash donations, Flaccavento supporters have written a steady drumbeat of op-eds and letters to the editor in local newspapers, like the Roanoke Times and the Bristol Herald Courier, over the past several months.
Flaccavento said in late September that internal campaign research shows that his name recognition is high and that he is within seven percentage points of his opponent.
Still, Kelly predicts that based on the available poll data, Flaccavento will lose by at least 15 points, which he noted would nonetheless be an improvement over his 2012 election, where Flaccavento lost by 22.7 points.
Nothing is certain, however. Democrats in Virginia have a strong candidate at the top of their ticket in U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, Denton said. If Kaine can do well, Denton believes Flaccavento could ride Kaine’s coattails into the House of Representatives.
Jacob L. Stump is an author, professor and small business owner from Konnarock in Southwest Virginia.