In Virginia's Ninth District Democratic Primary Race the Message is Progressive

May 16, 2018

There has never been a contested primary election in Virginia's Ninth Congressional District.  The Republican and Democratic party organizations chose their nominees and the contest to represent southwestern Virginia took place in November's general elections.  

But this year, two candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination and neither one considers himself a mainstream Democrat.

Anthony Flaccavento of Abingdon and Justin Santopietro of Blacksburg are running in Virginia's June 12th Democratic primary.  The winner will face four term Republican incumbent Morgan Griffith, of Salem, who is unopposed.  

Credit nationalatlas.gov

The Ninth Congressional District, in the heart of southern Appalachia, is largely rural. It went for Donald Trump in a big way in 2016. But the voters are not the only ones who are not on board with the mainstream Democratic Party's platform. 

Here's Justin Santopietro: "Growing up in Blacksburg, I always identified as a Democrat. After I went to Washington D.C. for college and to work, I came to the realization that a lot of people who also call themselves Democrats are quite different from me."

He says the mainstream Democratic party is too focused on appealing to urban and suburban voters and neglects the concerns of rural voters.  And that doesn't work for him or this district. "Democrats and Republicans in the ninth district have more in common with each other than either of our respective parties in Washington D.C.," Santopietro says. 

Both Santopietro and his opponent, Anthony Flaccavento, see themselves progressive Democrats.

"To me a 'progressive' is, fundamentally, somebody who believes that government should make it possible for the little guy to have a shot and not always give advantages to the big guy," Flaccavento says.

Anthony Flaccavento

Flaccavento is an organic farmer and he takes the distinction a step further, calling himself a 'Rural Progressive. ' "That means I see the world and try to live in the world from, to mem two very closely related points of view. One is a rural person as a farmer, as someone who has tried a livelihood around the land.   I don't think that (groups like)  the liberal establishment or the environmental movement generally has very good understanding of what it means to live in rural communities and to have rural livelihoods."

There's less political distance between Flaccavento and Santopietro than there is between them and the mainstream Democratic party. Both candidates oppose the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline, both favor legalization of marijuana, both their platforms suggest innovative paths forward for coal country and both candidates have been ignored by the national and state Democratic organizations.

Conventional wisdom suggests it's not worth it for the Democratic party to commit funding to a race like the

Justin Santopietro

Ninth District, which appears to be solidly Republican. The party needs to focus its funding on races it can win. " If you look at the basic polling, 'Are you a Republican or a Democrat in this district,' this is not one where you'd ( a Democrat) be competitive but the people who live here know better than that," Santopietro says.  "This district has had a Democratic representative for 35 out of the last 50 years, which is a pretty strong majority.  So, I don't think it's impossible to do that again."

But first, there's the primary election next month. Virginia is an open primary state. Registered voters can cast a ballot for any party.  Because typical turn out for Virginia primaries is around 5 per cent, even a few votes could make a difference in the outcome.

The Ninth Congressional District's Republican Committee normally chooses its candidates by convention.  Morgan Griffith, who's represented the district since 2010, was not challenged for the nomination and is running in the June 12th primary unopposed.