Year in Review: Republicans held control of legislative seats in 2015

Christopher Collins
Mark Obenshain
Todd Gilbert
LuAnn Bennett
Bob Goodlatte

The area’s legislative seats remained firmly in Republican hands in 2015, but one primary was packed with drama.

Winchester defense attorney Christopher Collins, 44, eked out a 166-vote win over Del. Mark Berg, R-Winchester, in the June Republican primary for the 29th District in the House of Delegates. Collins went on to take 85 percent of the vote in the general election, although there were 1,685 write-ins, many of which were attributed to an effort by Berg supporters.

The Collins-Berg race carried echoes of the division in the national and state Republican parties. Collins, a former member of the Frederick County Board of Supervisors, campaigned on job growth, a pro-business agenda and better communication with constituents.

Berg has roots in the Tea Party movement and said he preferred speaking about his job in broad philosophical terms, specifically conservative principles that included strong support for the rights of gun owners, opposition to the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia and opposition to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Berg was elected in 2013 when he ousted long-time incumbent Beverly Sherwood in the Republican primary and went on to win the general election.

Collins held the same positions as Berg on guns and health care but the challenger collected more support from party leaders and elected officials.

Both parties spent heavily in a battle for control of the State Senate. After all advertisements were aired and all the doors knocked on, Republicans held the same one-vote margin they had before Election Day.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, who shepherded an ethics reform bill through the General Assembly earlier in the year, said he regretted the large amounts of money spent on a handful of competitive races, but Democrats wanted to cement Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s legacy next year, and Republicans are determined to stop him. Gilbert said the philosophical differences between the two parties guarantee intense campaigns when both think they have a chance of winning.

“The stakes are very high, and that accounts for the amount of money that was invested by both sides,” Gilbert said.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, easily won re-election over Democrat April Moore in the 26th District, the only other contested legislative seat in the area in 2015.

Obenshain had been considered likely to run for governor in 2017 after falling only a few hundred votes short in losing the attorney general’s election to Democrat Mark Herring in 2013. But he announced he would forgo the race and stick with his current place in the Senate where he is co-chairman of the Courts of Justice Committee.

Moore campaigned hard throughout the district, which includes part of Rockingham County and Warren, Shenandoah, Page and Rappahannock counties.

Moore said after the campaign that she knew she was facing long odds in a district that has supported Republicans up and down the ballot in most recent elections. But she said the campaign was worth the effort for the opportunity it gave her to speak out on global warming, the influence of corporate money in politics and other issues important to her.

Karen Kennedy Schultz, director of the Center for Public Service and Integrity at Shenandoah University, said she doubted the northern Shenandoah Valley, at least the area around Winchester, is as heavily Republican as it is commonly perceived.

Kennedy Schultz came within a point of beating Sen. Jill Vogel in the 27th District in 2007. Winchester also voted for President Obama in 2008.

“I think when you look at the history of this area, it can certainly go either way,” Kennedy Schultz said.

Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said in an email message that underdog candidates in historically one-party districts can sometimes score an upset in years when voters have soured on the majority party.

“With the political winds at one’s back it’s possible to win a seat that’s somewhat unfavorable in a neutral environment,” Skelley wrote. “The strongest potential candidates tend to read conditions well and will be much more likely to take the candidate plunge if they think the environment will be friendly to their party. These fundamentals can make or break party recruitment efforts.”

After taking a drubbing in the U.S. House of Representatives 10th District in 2014, a race in which they expected to be far more competitive, Democrats have found at least one candidate to run against U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, in 2016.

LuAnn Bennett, 62, also of McLean, is president and owner of a real estate development, construction and property management firm in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, is entering the new year with no Democratic opponent in sight in the 6th District. Goodlatte was unopposed in his last re-election campaign, but Shenandoah County Democratic Committee Chairman Tony Dorrell said recently that he and other party leaders still hope one or more candidates will soon emerge.

Goodlatte, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, unveiled a proposed bill in October that would reform federal sentencing. The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, includes provisions for reducing some drug-related sentences. For example, a mandatory life sentence imposed for a habitual offender would be cut to 25 years. At the same time, the bill would increase sentences for those who have previous violent felonies on their record.

Beth Breeding, a press aide to Goodlatte, said in an email that the committee has also approved four other bills aimed at curbing what she called the “over criminalization” of federal law in several areas.

“These bills will ensure that our federal criminal laws and regulations appropriately punish wrongdoers, are effectively and appropriately enforced, operate with fairness and compassion, … and do not waste taxpayer dollars,” Breeding said.

Breeding added that other criminal justice reform bills will be introduced over the next few weeks.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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