A Tough Candidate Forum in Virginia Previews the GOP Playbook for 2022

A Tough Candidate Forum in Virginia Previews the GOP Playbook for 2022

A Tough Candidate Forum in Virginia Previews the GOP Playbook for 2022

Democratic delegate Nancy Guy is facing an über-Trumper using culture war garbage against her. And it could work.

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Virginia Beach, Va. — If November’s election for control of the state House of Delegates is anything like Tuesday night’s candidate forum in this coastal, military swing district, it could be a tough night for Democrats. Which could also foreshadow a bad 2022 midterm cycle.

Sponsored by the local nonpartisan Civic League, the forum was the first in-person meeting between Delegate Nancy Guy, who won her 2019 race by 27 votes, helping Democrats take control of the House, and her far-right challenger, attorney and gun shop owner Tim Anderson. He’s best known for (unsuccessfully) defending state Senator Amanda Chase against her censure by the Senate for attending the January 6 insurrection and for calling the participants “patriots.” Anderson also got a protester who unlawfully entered the Capitol off with a misdemeanor plea and no jail time. He filmed himself firing a flamethrower into something he depicted as the “Democrats[’] radical agenda,” shouting “Wooooo!” as it went up in flames.

The political newcomer defeated the favorite in the GOP primary, former delegate Chris Stolle, a comparative moderate who’d held the seat for a decade before narrowly losing to Guy.

But on stage with Guy, Anderson presented himself as a reasonable person, mainly concerned that Democrats in Richmond, who also control the governor’s office and the state Senate (narrowly), have a check on their power. “A balanced government is a better government,” he insisted.

I don’t know why I expected Anderson to come off like the QAnon shaman—my bad—but I was unprepared for a pleasant-seeming guy in a blue sports coat, who repeatedly claimed he supported elements of that Democratic agenda he shot with a flamethrower, except that party radicals went too far.

On a bill that gave nonviolent inmates sentence reductions for participating in counseling and drug addiction services, for instance, Anderson insisted he liked a lot of it—“except they specifically wrote child pornography into the bill.” As though Guy were controlled by the child pornography cartel. (The bill includes people accused of first-time possession, Guy told the crowd, because many of them say they inadvertently downloaded illegal images when visiting legal porn sites.) Legislation that transferred the decision on whether to refer school-based student misdemeanors to the police from principals to school superintendents was also not terrible, Anderson said—except that “if my daughter is groped on a school bus,” principals wouldn’t have to treat that as a serious crime.

Anderson got a major assist from debate moderator Al Wallace, a longtime local Republican activist who greeted Guy with a hug but proceeded to ask questions that seemed crafted by the Republican National Committee. He featured the entire GOP 2021 playlist (expect to see it in 2022), posing specific questions on the nonexistent teaching of Critical Race Theory in Virginia schools, the “defund the police” movement, the Democrats’ alleged support of “post-birth abortion,” policies concerning transgender students, the supposedly looming inflation spiral, the cost of legislation to convert Virginia’s electrical grid to clean energy… and I’m sure I’m forgetting something.

There was no fact-checking, except what Guy could do herself, so Anderson got away with claiming the incumbent supports defunding the police because she was endorsed by the Future Now Fund, which he described as an anti-police movement. (It’s not.) State legislative candidates got hit with the same claim in 2020 (I wrote about it here); the Future Now Fund supports progressives in state legislative races, as long as they support fairly broad goals like “Good Jobs,” “Equal Opportunity for All,” and “Affordable Quality Health Care.” It has a “policy library” buried on its website, in which it suggests that states study whether public safety would be enhanced by funding additional support services. (Endorsed candidates do not sign on to the policy library; only a handful know about it.) Some Republican dug that up last year, and it’s the gift that’s still giving in a new election cycle.

“I do not and never have suggested defunding the police,” Guy corrected Anderson, noting that she voted for an 8.5 percent pay raise for state police, and bonuses for other first responders. But Anderson came at her again, comparing her accepting the Future Now Fund endorsement to his (hypothetically) embracing the Ku Klux Klan. That was an interesting comparison, in light of Anderson’s penchant for defending Confederate monuments and police officers accused of abuses. He also claimed, without evidence, that Virginia Beach schools are teaching white students “you should apologize for being white.”

Guy came across as competent, compassionate, and brave as she defended her legislative priorities. Trying to get nonviolent offenders out of prison is important, she insisted, because “we have 4 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its incarcerated people. We lock people up for being mentally ill and addicted.” When Anderson blithely asked the audience, “How come none of you live in Norfolk?” and answered, “Because the schools are terrible,” she called his statement “appalling” (Norfolk, 40 percent Black, is where most of the district’s African American voters live). When he insisted that providing parents with school choice vouchers amounted to letting them “collectively bargain” with schools, she very effectively compared it to letting people concerned about police abuses “yank their money out of police departments.”

And when Anderson proclaimed that Roe v. Wade would never be overturned, and insisted he’d always follow the guidance of the Supreme Court—he pointed to the Casey decision, the last to define acceptable abortion limits—Guy noted that he’d left himself a big loophole there, since the Supreme Court has radically changed. “There is a very real possibility now that Roe v. Wade will be repealed. Then, state legislators will be the deciding factor in whether abortion stays legal.” She insisted that the choice belongs to “the woman whose body is involved,” not the government.

Anderson got no questions about his extremist position on guns, nor his support for insurrection-attending Senator Chase. As it happened, Chase turned up at the forum, carrying a purse bedazzled with an image of the American flag, to support “her friend” Anderson, she told me. He has “a very good chance” of unseating Guy, because “he’s sat at kitchen tables with people here. He’s helped people.” She acknowledged that he’d also “helped” her fight her Senate censure. When I asked her about Anderson’s distancing himself from her politically, telling The Washington Post, “Amanda Chase is not extremely effective because her colleagues just don’t like her,” she answered, “I talked to him and he said that’s not what he meant by that,” and quickly changed seats.

I got a moment with Anderson as he was helping restack chairs after the forum. He insisted his defense of Chase was a “free speech” issue, noting that she didn’t enter the Capitol, and adding, “I’ve always said those who broke the law should be arrested.” I did not get to ask about his defense of Joshua Bustle, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully entering the Capitol. Anderson has insisted that Bustle and his wife, also charged, “should not be labeled as ‘extremist’ or ‘domestic terrorists. They are normal, good and patriotic Americans that did not wake up on January 6, 2021, expecting to commit any crimes.” Jessica Bustle posted on Facebook that “[Vice President Mike] Pence is a traitor. We stormed the capital [sic],” which doesn’t sound normal, good or patriotic to me. (The Bustles got no jail time, only home detention.)

I’m in Virginia reporting, broadly, on the race for control of the House of Delegates, and I don’t want to get ahead of my own story—more to come—but this event made me think the Virginia election deserves more national attention. To expect the kind it got in 2017, when Democrats flipped an unthinkable 15 delegate seats in the wake of Donald Trump’s catastrophic election, is probably unrealistic. But there’s an evident enthusiasm gap on the ground here. First-term GOP state Senator Jen Kiggens, who is running against Representative Elaine Luria, showed up along with Chase to support Anderson. The forum, unexpectedly packed on a Tuesday night, seemed evenly divided between Guy and Anderson supporters. But the Republicans ignored the GOP moderator’s plea to hold applause until the end of the event, cheering for Anderson after every question, while Democrats mostly obeyed it. I don’t want to read too much into that.

Guy supporter Martha Thereault, a retired real estate professional and avid environmentalist, told me afterward that she thought her candidate “knocked it out of the park.” But she lamented “the extremely slanted question base” and the lack of questions about Anderson’s defense of insurrectionists. Guy herself told me directly that she, too, found the questions unexpectedly “slanted.”

The incumbent says she knows the race is tight, and notes that she enjoyed being the challenger in 2019. “This is my race to lose,” she said wryly. “And last time, I had more confidence that my opponent was a good person. I’m not so sure about this guy.”

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