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Can an Organic Farmer Win in Appalachian Virginia?

Anthony Flaccavento is running a left-wing campaign against a Tea Party Republican in one of the nation's most conservative districts.

Courtesy of Flaccavento for Congress

Virginia’s 9th congressional district, in the largely mountainous southwestern corner of the state, is one of the most conservative districts in the state—even the country. Cook Political Report says the district leans Republican by 19 points. Donald Trump won 68 percent of the vote there. It went for Mitt Romney and John McCain, and indeed every other Republican presidential candidate since 1964. When President Barack Obama travelled there in 2009 to build support for the Affordable Care Act, locals greeted him with protests. It is not a place any Democrat seems likely to win a race for Congress.

So Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith should, theoretically, have little trouble defeating Anthony Flaccavento this November. But the 9th district’s political history is more complicated than it seems, as reflected by Griffith’s own rise to power. He defeated Democratic incumbent Rick Boucher eight years ago with the backing of a newly powerful Tea Party movement. At the time, Boucher had represented the 9th for 28 years. The district’s Democrats now face the same quandary that confronts Democrats throughout these mountains: How can the party rebuild power in the Appalachians?

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin is one of the most conservative Democrats in the U.S. Senate, and thus embodies the old party doctrine that only conservative or moderate Democrats can reliably win in districts like Virginia’s 9th. But Flaccavento, a 61-year-old organic farmer and author, is running on Medicare for All, green alternatives to the coal industry, and abortion rights. Like Richard Ojeda in West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district, Flaccavento believes that progressive populism, not political moderation, can revive a flagging Democratic Party in rural America.

Ojeda recently campaigned for Flaccavento, crossing the state line in an expression of Appalachian solidarity. Ojeda’s race is a toss-up, or at worst leans Republican. But neither RealClearPolitics nor Cook Political Report rates the 9th as competitive. This also isn’t Flaccavento’s first run against Griffith. He lost to Griffith by 20 points in 2012.

But Flaccavento and his supporters say that this year is different, that the 9th is different. As evidence, his campaign cites internal polling that puts him within 7 points of Griffith. Flaccavento, who also supports stricter anti-trust regulation, a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, and an emphasis on rehabilitation over incarceration for opioid users, believes that Trump isn’t as popular as he used to be, even in western Virginia, and that Griffith’s political credit is running out.

“When I ran six years ago, Mr. Griffith was a first-term incumbent. So people were still kind of checking him out and giving him the benefit of the doubt,” he told me. “Now he’s been here for eight years, and people are no longer giving him the benefit of the doubt. They’re wondering what he’s doing.”

The Fighting 9th, as it’s called, is large. At more than 9,100 square miles, it’s larger than the state of New Jersey, but just 700,000 people live within its borders. It takes up the state’s entire Appalachian west, beginning just west of Roanoke and touching the borders of West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky. The southern region of the district is historically agricultural; coal lies to the north. A successful insurgent will have to cover that distance, closing gaps both physical and political. To that end, Flaccavento has pledged to hold 100 town halls before polls open in November; his campaign says that as of today, he’s completed 80.

“It takes eight hours to traverse the entire district and in addition, it’s not very well populated. So in order for somebody to try and unseat an incumbent, you have to be able to put in a lot of miles on your car and wear out a lot of pairs of shoes,” said Delegate Chris Hurst, a Democrat in the General Assembly who represents the city of Radford and surrounding areas, which are in the 9th.

As the geography of the district defies easy generalities, so does its political identity. Trump has widespread support, but since he took office in 2016, regional loyalty to the president hasn’t always guaranteed victories for Republican candidates. Hurst defeated a Republican incumbent for his seat in 2017. And while Virginia’s western counties backed Republican Ed Gillespie for governor, data published by The New York Times after the conclusion of 2017’s gubernatorial race showed a shift toward blue: Ralph Northam, who defeated Gillespie, outperformed Hillary Clinton’s share of the 2016 vote in the 9th district.

The district’s historical voting patterns are idiosyncratic. In the coalfields, the United Mineworkers of America has long been an important vehicle for turning out Democratic votes. Bob Hutton, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the author of Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South, said the region’s Democratic support didn’t end with the coal counties. “We talk a lot about the mining districts up there on the West Virginia and Kentucky line,” he said. “You don’t often hear as much about the smattering of family farms that were still in existence... And those were farmers who had voted Democratic for the most part since the Great Depression, if not before.”

But they were also split-ticket voters. During Rick Boucher’s 28 years as the Democratic representative for the 9th, his constituents voted for Republican presidents. “Rick Boucher is from Washington County, Virginia,” Hutton said. “During that time, his hometown was never once carried by a Democratic president. In fact, Washington County hasn’t been carried by a Democratic president since 1964.” Griffith’s 2010 victory didn’t represent a Republican realignment, at least at the federal level, so much as it represented a solidification of Republican support.

Over the past decade, the state has shifted left in presidential and statewide elections—thanks largely to population growth in the northern half of the state, from Richmond to Washington, D.C. The question is whether western Virginia also will turn blue, or at least less red.

“I think the reason that Trump does well here is largely for the same reasons that he was able to carry five districts in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that had traditionally voted Democratic. You know, working people have historically looked to the Democratic Party as the party that offered solutions to their problems. And rightly so,” Boucher said in a phone call. He added that there’s “a fine line” between “working person sentiment” and the sort of populism Trump claimed to espouse, and that while Trump’s version was popular in the 9th, his success there doesn’t indicate that the district fundamentally changed in 2016.

“I think a Democrat who can talk about real problems in the community and ways to solve those problems, who really understands what the needs of working people are and who announces programs that will address those needs, has a very good chance of winning,” he said. “That is exactly who Anthony is.”

Like Hutton, I grew up in Washington County, where Flaccavento also farms. (None of us have met.) The Appalachian Regional Commission says Washington County’s economy is in “transition,” which means that its economy has improved while some surrounding counties still struggle. Even so, its rate of adults out of work is still significantly higher than the national average, according to the Economic Innovation Group, and life spans are shorter. Go north, up through the coalfield counties, and the poverty levels increase as employment levels decrease. There are bright spots in the district; the counties on the district’s eastern edge are better off economically than many counties to their west. The district might not be monolithic, but its inequalities are prevalent. Opioid addiction, black lung, depopulation—the 9th experiences it all.

The 9th district has, at times, turned to the political left to address its troubles. The region’s political history, like that of its neighbor, West Virginia, includes a tradition of militant labor organizing against the coal industry’s exploitative practices. And since 2016, progressives established a more visible presence, which could count in Flaccavento’s favor.

“I do think there has been an uptick in people willing to call themselves progressive,” said Robert Kell of Young Appalachian Patriots, a political group that formed as a response to Trump (and whose name intentionally echoes the Young Patriots Organization, a left-wing collective of Appalachian migrants in Chicago a half-century ago.) “I grew up in Marion, and I felt like there weren’t a lot of young progressive people in high school. But now that I’ve moved away and then come back, I feel like the vast majority of young people I know are progressive-leaning. When they talk about issues, they talk about issues in a way that that draws from their personal story. It demonstrates that they are very aware of the ways in which certain policies shape their lives.”

Kell cited Medicaid expansion, which the state General Assembly passed this year, as an example. “People have that real-life experience of waiting in line in Wise County to get their eyes checked and their teeth checked or get their diabetes under control. Sometimes they learn they have cancer for the first time in a barn,” he said, referring to the area’s free Remote Area Medical Clinics, which convene semi-regularly at the Wise County fairgrounds. Clinicians conduct some exams and treatments in a nearby horse barn due to space constraints. “When a candidate like Anthony comes and says, ‘Hey, you deserve to have healthcare, you deserve to be able to go to the doctor and have your health needs covered,’ I think people begin to understand that and really resonate with that message,” he added.

Meanwhile, Griffith’s critics say that his presence in the region has been sparing. He’s held a handful of town halls in the district since taking office; he held one in August in conjunction with the local chapter of the NAACP, according to Karen Jones, the chapter’s political action chair. “But those were pre-prepared written questions that he was provided. He took written questions from the audience, but that was just our members,” said Jones, who has been canvassing and phone-banking for the Flaccavento campaign. “So if you’re kind of outside of a member group or organization that he’s speaking in front of, I haven’t seen any open events for constituents to come to.”

Griffith, whose campaign did not return requests for comment, has lost at least one supporter as a result. Chris Church works at Bristol Compressors, or will until the end of the month; the plant is set to close on September 30, putting 470 people out of work. Church, who says he voted for Griffith (and Trump), credited Flaccavento for promptly reaching out to the plant’s workers, meeting with a group of them on August 16, six days before Griffith arrived to do the same; the Democrat also set up a helpline “to inform workers of their legal rights,” the Washington County News reported at the time. “He came and talked to us for a good hour and a half. He took a lot of notes,” Church said of Flaccavento. “And I have nothing against Morgan Griffith, but he has showed us no concern, other than [saying] ‘We’re looking into it. We’re looking into it.’” Church now says that he supports Flaccavento, as do a number of his coworkers.

Griffith’s absenteeism may not be enough to tip the race in Flaccavento’s favor. The Republican congressman can cite some achievements: In May, he harshly criticized opioid distributors for failing to report suspiciously large orders for painkillers. And in a September interview with The Virginian Review, he said that the “balanced regulations” he supports have saved local businesses like the WestRock paper mill in Covington, Virginia. He has $411,539 on hand to Flaccavento’s $100,762. Griffith also votes mostly in line with Trump, who is still popular with district voters.

But Flaccavento, who founded a consulting firm that advises communities on building farmers’ markets and supporting organic agriculture, believes his “rural progressive platform” can win them over. “I am very much a progressive. I am not a Joe Manchin Democrat one bit,” he said. “It really starts with the land, and it starts with people’s connection to the land, whether they’re farming or logging or fishing or hunting or mining. It starts with the thinking that whatever we do, and how many resources we put into protecting the land, we have to give the same attention and resources to ensuring that people can have a decent life.”