26th District Update–Potential Candidates

Well, it looks like Rockingham and Harrisonburg is settling in for its first special election since 2008 and the first one for the General Assembly that I know of (feel free to chime in if anyone has history on this). The timing is still very tentative on all this, as under state code it is the Governor that calls special elections for the House of Delegates, unlike with local vacancies where all sorts of timelines are dictated by law. Before anyone accuses me of jumping the gun, let’s face the facts:

  1. This special was triggered by a happy event, not tragedy, and Delegate Lohr has made clear his intention to leave the House
  2. Rockingham and Harrisonburg have very active and vocal committees
  3. Given the redness of the county, there are a large number of Republican elected officials who could conceivably run, to say nothing of former officials and candidates.
  4. Given recent performance by the Democrats in Harrisonburg, this seat will be viewed as at least somewhat in play by DPV, particularly given that redistricting will likely move the district inwards towards Harrisonburg and take away some of the most Republican territory in the district

If you still think I’m jumping the gun, forgive me. Sometimes you just can’t help yourself when it comes to intra-party intrigue. So what will the process look like? Well, from my reading of state law, primaries CANNOT be held in the event of special elections, so the nominee is going to be chosen using one of three party-run mechanisms: a firehouse canvass (which is essentially a primary except run by the party and generally not for the full 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. timeframe of public primaries), a convention (in which Delegates are elected by the units {in this case Harrisonburg and Rockingham} and the number of Delegates elected by each are determined by the unit’s relative strength in the District), or a mass meeting (in which all Republicans may participate but again is run for a much shorter period of time and according to the rules of parliamentary procedure). I think a mass meeting is highly unlikely given the district comprises two units. We may see some wrangling over the method itself–however, the vote on the method will fall to just two men–Dave Huffman, Rockingham County Chair, and Tracy Evans, Harrisonburg City Chair. A nominee must be selected either a) within five days of the writ being issued if the election is to be held less than 35 days from the time it was issued or b) no less than thirty days before the special election. The method of nomination may very well dictate who gets in and who doesn’t given that some methods will clearly not favor some candidates.

We will have continuing analysis of the district throughout the week, including the interplay of deeply red Rockingham and purplish Harrisonburg, along with the effect redistricting will have on the district as well as the campaign. However, for the time being I want to start by discussing the candidates in play. Again, this may seem to be jumping the gun, but let’s be honest–the jockeying has already begun. Additionally, the announcement comes just days before the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Lincoln Day Dinner sponsored by the combined Republican Women’s Club, so there will definitely be some jousting going on by that time. Below the fold is a blow by blow for the names floating around. For right now we’ll start with the Republican side for one simple reason–I know the players.

Let’s kick things off with the two candidates I see LEAST likely to join the fray.

Mike Meredith, Former Rockingham County GOP Chair

Mike has a master political mind and is extremely good with the media. Additionally, he is a small businessman and can talk the fiscal talk dominating the current political landscape. Additionally, he has long time ties to the social conservatives led by Dean Welty of the Valley Family Forum. However, I see his candidacy as unlikely for three reasons. First and foremost, its not clear he lives in the district. He lives in Elkton but may actually be in the 15th. Unlike with Congress (see Morgan Griffifth in the 9th) you actually have to live in your district to serve it in the General Assembly (see Dave Marsden’s manuvering to capture Ken Cuccinelli’s open seat). Secondly, Mike has recently scaled back his political involvement, resigning as county chair (though he remains in charge of publicity). Third, his business is the Printing Express, which in addition to being Matt Lohr’s main vendor also serves Republicans throughout the state, which could raise questions in the media. Meredith is likely satisfied with the influence he can wield now, so I predict will ALMOST CERTAINLY NOT RUN.

John Elledge, J.D., Former Legislative Assistant to Glenn Weatherholtz

Elledge is a lawyer in town but is likely better known as Glenn Weatherholtz’s longtime legislative assistant. Glenn left the seat in 2005, and Elledge was ready to run, going so far as to file a committee with the state. However, behind the scenes moves led to then County School Board member Matt Lohr developing an early lead, causing Elledge to drop the race before the nomination was even decided. Elledge still hangs around some, but his law firm may be big enough now that it wouldn’t be in his best interest to run. Someone has already posted the notion on Elledge’s facebook page but he has stated that there is a candidate he will likely defer to. I believe he LIKELY WILL NOT RUN.

Now let’s move onto elected officials, starting first with two constitutional officers. A general note: I believe both men start as pretty much clean slates for the simple reason that they don’t have to take any votes and therefore do not have much of a record to be scrutinized. Their potential candidacies rise and fall on personality and party service.

Lowell Barb, Rockingham County Commissioner of the Revenue

Barb was elected to the office of Commissioner in November 2008 when the sudden death of Commissioner Richard Connellee shortly following his re-election triggered a special election. Lowell is well liked in Republican circles and overwhelmingly won over Democrat Esther Nizer. He and his wife are also master organizers, and Barb hits every single parade and lawn party in the County every year. However, he’s run a relatively low key operation as Commissioner, though he hasn’t rocked the boat at all. His biggest calculation–if the serious pay cut he would face as Delegate is worth it. I’d rate him as MIGHT RUN but likely to defer if another big name gets in.

Chaz Evans-Haywood, Clerk of Court Harrisonburg-Rockingham

Chaz, an Army Veteran and JMU grad, is a long time fixture in Republican circles, having previously served as then Senator George Allen’s liasion in the Valley. Chaz won a bruising ELEVEN WAY race to become the next Court of Clerk, fending off a well positioned Democrat and numerous independents, including a few who played the famous “…..but I’m really a Republican” card (usually the go-to for those who are foiled at the nomination or just don’t think its worth the headache to even try but still want the office). Chaz is very well organized and does a pretty good job of keeping the relatively low key office in the public view, particularly through its preservation work. He has also maintained very strong ties to the local committee, serving as City Committee Vice-Chairman. Again the biggest question for him–is it worth the pay cut? Additionally, his running and winning the seat would trigger ANOTHER special election. Would the voters punish the party for playing musical chairs? I’d rate him for a POSSIBLE RUN depending on who gets in.

Now onto other potential candidates from another set of electeds: Council and Board members.

Kerri Wilson, Harrisonburg City School Board Member

Wilson was previously chair of the Harrisonburg City Committee. She resigned her position after being elected and has not been quite as active in the Committee as other potential candidates. However, she maintains very close ties to the Obenshains. The biggest obstacle for Kerri: Her husband is Judge Thomas Wilson of the Circuit Court, meaning she’d be seeking election to the body that controls his appointment. Still, the early rumors are that she is definitely considering a bid. I’d rate her as a LIKELY RUN.

Tom Mendez, Harrisonburg City School Board Member

Mendez, father of six children, is a Vice-President at BB&T Insurance Services and a member of the City School Board. Tom had been rumored as a potential candidate for City Council. However, Greg Coffman, one of his colleagues, has announced, and former Councilman Charlie Chenault and Ted Byrd may yet duke it out for one of two nominations. Additionally, Mendez has drawn fire for a joke he made at the expense of former President George W. Bush at a meeting with teachers, although his Facebook page lists him as a fan of the Governor, Scott Brown, and Bob Goodlatte. Given that this was already causing him issues for a Council run, I’d rate him as a COULD RUN but will face an uphill battle.

Pablo Cuevas, Rockingham County Board of Supervisors Chairman

Cuevas, a retired VP with Riddleberger Construction, has been on the county board since 1990. Before that he was on the County planning commission and on Broadway Town Council. Cuevas is a relatively low key figure but has a following of his own. He’s securely in the district and has always been re-elected with huge margins. However, having been on the board that long means he has taken hundreds of recorded votes, and not everyone on the county committee is satisfied with the current board’s view on development. Cuevas is secure in his Board seat but these votes could take on a whole new meaning in a nomination fight. I’d rate him tentatively as UNLIKELY TO RUN.

Now for the final group: party activists. All of these are former public officeholders or elected officials, but they aren’t currently in office, so they clearly have to work the party and get a cadre of loyalists behind them to get the nomination.

Penny Paul Imeson, former GOP Candidate for Harrisonburg Treasurer

Imeson, a small business owner, was the GOP City Committee’s candidate for Treasurer in 2008 following a corruption scandal which booted the incumbent out of office. Facing Democratic headwinds and a squeaky clean independent, she came in third. Penny remains active in the committee and has close ties to the Obenshains, but her skills and mindset seem to lean far more towards an administrative position rather than the legislature. I’d rate her as LIKELY NOT TO RUN.

Tracy Evans, former City Council candidate and current Harrisonburg City Chair

Evans, a lawyer in a firm with John Elledge, lost his bid for City Council against strong Democratic turnout. Evans, at 34, certainly remains interested in public office, but would he take on a crowded field? Additionally, he’s got partial responsibility for running this rodeo, and activists may get upset if he is a candidate but is also making the rules. At this point I’d rate him as COULD RUN but likely to defer.

Judy Way, former Dayton City Council member and County GOP Secretary

Judy, a waitress, was formerly Mayor of Dayton until she lost re-election in 2008. She was also Secretary of the 6th Congressional District Committee until June 2008. Judy remains a vocal advocate for her principles and a dedicated party servant, as she is very involved in the local Republican women. Two questions: Just how big is her following, and can she set the tone for the race to shake perceptions about her political past? I’d rate her as LIKELY TO RUN barring an all star candidate coalescing support early on.

That’s just about all I can think of for right now. Have more tips? More leads? Share them in the comments below.

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  1. March 17, 2010 at 9:09 am

    The DN-R’s list of potential Republican candidates sounds much more plausible than your list.

  2. March 17, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Well, I never claimed that this list was authoritative. However, I can say that as of right now (10:22 A.M. on Wednesday March 17th) at least two of the candidates on my list that I have marked as likely candidates have all but declared.

    However, I think its pretty clear that things will move extremely quickly on this. Candidates who may say they’re definitely in right now could be out by tomorrow morning if the right candidate comes along/the right person tells them to not bother. The big question: Just how hiearchical is the local party? I think Lohr and Chaz would demonstrate that generally speaking a field can be cleared pretty quickly, but do the players want to play on this? Furthermore, has Tea Party fever caught on to such a degree that there’s enough people who are convinced that they “can do it better”, party leaders be damned? That’s what could make this a sideshow real quick, which is way I think its smart to look at whole field, likely and unlikely though some may be.

    I suppose I can’t write without commenting on the DNR’s “list” though (trusting the paper over activists? Shame on you!) Byrd is definitely a possibility, and I was leaning towards including him last night but just didn’t because honestly I don’t know that much about him. However, he definitely has a good “valley name” and would be a fairly decent crossover candidate. However, is he solid enough for the hard right base? Sure they love him because he’s the only GOPer on city council, but again, all those votes take on a new meaning when interpreted by ultra-fiscos in a nomination fight. Still, he’s one to watch.

    Ritchie is another one but he’s got a problem–his father. The senior Ritchie was adamantly pro-Brownlee and was even threatening to note vote for Cuccinelli in the general. How much of an effect will this have? Eh. The bigger issue is will they reward him when his profile as a volunteer leaves something to be desired.

    Wilt is a money man. That’s his role. He’s not expected to be volunteer #1. Definitely a soco and could possibly get a large following quickly. However, if he’s late on the gun, he could get lost in the pack quickly.

  3. March 17, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Let’s be honest. All this speculation is moot until the Obenshains decide who they want.

    Generally successful candidates are those who have already have a public image rather than just a party role. That’s why Lohr trumped Elledge, and that’s why a field of Kerri Wilson, Ted Byrd and Tony Wilt is (in my mind) the most plausible.

    Ted Byrd would be a good strategic choice, because if the Republicans nominate a candidate from Harrisonburg it makes it extremely hard for the Democrats to build a lead there.

    Tony Wilt should not be underestimated, especially in the event of a mass meeting or a firehouse primary. In those situations late momentum with a large potential base of fervent support can be crucial.

    From a spectator’s point of view, the most interesting contest would pit a city candidate against a county candidate for the Republican nomination. But a lot depends on the method of nomination.

    But hey, I’m just a local progressive. You’re almost certainly going to have better info than me.

  4. Savanna
    March 17, 2010 at 10:56 am
  5. So from this do we gather that you think the nominee will be Kerri Wilson? Since she is the only one you have as a likely run?
  • March 17, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Well, you’ll note that I also have Judy Way as likely running as well. Right now I think the Constitutional officers are unlikely–they have little to gain in this, strange as that seems. I plan on writing up Wilt and Byrd a little later, as they seem to be emerging as leading candidates.

    I’m still of the opinion that the mood in the party is such that this still has the potential to turn into a bloodbath like the Fifth–perhaps not nearly as consequential as the Fifth, but I think there’s still the chance for some SoCos, Paleos, FisCos and just a few plain whackjobs to go their own way.

    And Adam, let’s be honest–I need the traffic and something to occupy my time. I do agree with you, however, that things may not fully shake out until the method of nomination. There’s talk elsewhere of “Marsha” and “Obenshain” factions–presumably running along Cooch/Brownlee lines. Yet I think that could be more of just people carrying over that temporary fight than any real split. After all, Mark and Matt did get Marsha’s boy Claybrook on the bench.

  • March 17, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Oh man, you mean there’s the possibility of a Garst/Obenshain tussle? I’m going to order extra popcorn!

    I agree about Chaz and Lowell Barb – usually the path is for a delegate to run for a constitutional office, not the other way around. I can imagine a really awkward conversation around the kitchen table trying to convince a spouse that it’s a good idea to leave a local job with a good salary in exchange for a part-time job in Richmond that only pays part-time wages.

    I don’t mean to be crass about the decision-making, but I know if I were in that position I would have a really hard time convincing Mrs. Sharp to go along with that idea.

    • March 17, 2010 at 12:15 pm

      I should probably post this disclaimer–a candidate’s willingness and dedication to jump in and stay in is by now means any guarantee that they’ll be the eventual nominee. In fact, it can often belie a sort of unwaveringly and uncompromising personality that could very well make it difficult for them to ever get the nod.

      Not saying that of any of the candidates–just as a general note on how gadflies are born.

  • March 18, 2010 at 8:31 am

    I don’t know about trusting the paper versus trusting activists, but my network of sources has confirmed that Tony Wilt is running.

    Thank you Facebook!

    • March 18, 2010 at 10:43 pm

      Hmmmmm…..methinks I need some new facebook friends, given that I got about 1 out of 4 potential names right (and the one I got probably won’t run in the end).

      However, it would seem that, given that Wilt is “in” as you say and that Ritchie is supposedly “in” according to Myron, we may yet have a fight between, erm, the conservative and very conservative factions? My experience is that the remaining moderate/Country Club Republicans have pretty much gone quietly from Hburg/Rockingham GOP politics, though one could possibly put Marsha in that category. Whatever the case, I would assume that some of the old school money types realize there’s too much money to be made in “new” Harrisonburg to bother with politics. Elsewhere in the Valley its a different matter.

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