A contested primary in the 23rd House District is expected to draw low turnout Tuesday when voters choose the Republican nominee to replace retiring Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg.
The race could come down to a handful of votes separating the candidates, according to Wendell Walker, one of the three Republican hopefuls. That’s why Walker and his two rivals, Turner Perrow and Ron Berman, have spent dozens of hours knocking on hundreds of doors, hoping to energize supporters.
“In these campaigns we know who are voters are,” Walker said. “I want to make sure come Tuesday night, I have holes in both of my shoes from door knocking.”
In recent weeks the three Republican hopefuls have crisscrossed the district, which includes Lynchburg and parts of Amherst and Bedford counties. The race marks the first contested primary since the district was redrawn nearly a decade ago.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this fall and Republicans are counting on holding the 23rd District seat to maintain their slim majority in the House. All qualified voters are eligible to participate regardless of party affiliation. Polls are open Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For Walker and Berman, the primary is the first time they’ve stormed the campaign trail as candidates, though neither are strangers to politics. Both have deep ties to the local GOP; Walker currently serves as chair of the Lynchburg Republican Committee and Berman is a longtime conservative activist.
Perrow, a Lynchburg councilman, has won three terms on city council. He represents Ward IV and is hoping his support among Lynchburg voters will help carry him to victory Tuesday.
More than 64% of registered voters in the 23rd House district reside within the Lynchburg city limits, according to Virginia Department of Elections records. Nearly a quarter live in Bedford County and the remaining 12% are registered to vote in Amherst County.
Perrow also has ties to Amherst County. He was raised there and he owns property in the county. Vance Wilkins, the former Speaker of the House of Delegates and the chairman of the Amherst GOP, has endorsed him.
Perrow has another key advantage in the race: fundraising. Since launching his campaign, he has raised more than $30,000 in donations, including in-kind contributions. Meanwhile, Walker took in $18,000 and Berman raised $6,415.
Much of Walker’s donations have come from his close political allies — including Garrett, who donated $2,000 to his campaign. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, and Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, also have contributed to his campaign.
The race has helped expose divisions within the local party. Garrett’s vote to expand Medicaid last year has been a source of concern among conservative voters. At the time, Garrett said he supported expansion because of work requirements for Medicaid recipients but has since expressed concerns about exemptions to the requirements.
At times, Garrett’s vote has put Walker and Perrow in awkward positions on the campaign trail. Both count Garrett as a friend but they have strongly condemned his vote to expand Medicaid.
“He was a good friend of mine; I learned a tremendous amount from him,” Perrow said of Garrett. “I don’t think he listened to his constituents on this the last time around.”
Berman, a self-described abortion abolitionist, has blasted Garrett for the Medicaid vote, arguing it helps fund Planned Parenthood. He has used the issue to hammer home a major theme of his campaign: Elect the conservative who won’t compromise on moral issues.
The voters “want a candidate who says what he means,” Berman said. “And that’s an issue because people feel like they’ve been betrayed by their parties. Anyone can look good on a six-by-nine mailer with glossy paper but they want to know the actual person. They want to know if there’s actually some integrity behind those pledges and behind those positions.”
The close of the primary has come in the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, which claimed the lives of 12 people at a city municipal building May 31. Gov. Ralph Northam has called a special session for legislators to take up Democrat-backed gun control measures. Among the proposals are bans on silencers and high-capacity magazines, laws mandating universal background checks and a broadening of local government’s authority to prohibit firearms from entering municipal buildings.
In interviews last week, each candidate said they opposed Northam’s proposals.
“I think that this is just exploitation of a tragedy,” Berman said of the special session. “And it frustrates me because, honestly, none of the laws that are proposed would have stopped this.”
Walker and Perrow agree.
“I’m 100% against every one of those things that the governor is attempting to do,” Walker said.
“As a local elected official, our civil servants are hardworking and good people,” Perrow said. “To have someone have a mental breakdown like that… is awful. My prayers are with the victims and their families. From a policy side we need to look at the mental health aspect.”
Richard Chumney covers public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.