Could Trump Help Turn an Open Virginia Seat Blue?

Both parties paying closer attention to traditionally Republican 5th District

Republican Tom Garrett and Democrat Jane Dittmar are facing off for Virginia's 5th District seat, left open by the retirement of GOP Rep. Robert Hurt. (Photos courtesy campaign websites)
Republican Tom Garrett and Democrat Jane Dittmar are facing off for Virginia's 5th District seat, left open by the retirement of GOP Rep. Robert Hurt. (Photos courtesy campaign websites)
Posted October 20, 2016 at 5:00am

Jane Dittmar had tried to tie her Republican opponent in Virginia’s 5th District to Donald Trump Wednesday, something that most Democratic congressional candidates are doing to their opponents these days.

She wanted GOP state Sen. Tom Garrett to condemn two armed Trump supporters who protested outside her office last week. 

“Unfortunately, Tom Garrett is following in the footsteps of his endorsed leader Donald Trump, who has continued to stoke violence on the campaign trail,” Dittmar said in a statement announcing a news conference. Garrett showed up at the event in Charlottesville to “condemn threats of violence by supporters of either party,” he said in a release. 

For much of this campaign, the open-seat race to replace three-term GOP Rep. Robert Hurt has been a sleepy contest. But with Hillary Clinton expected to do well in Virginia, this race is getting more attention lately as a lower-tier race that Democrats could pick up if there’s a wave.

[Virginia’s Robert Hurt to Retire After Three Terms]

American Action Network, the conservative nonprofit advocacy organization affiliated with the super PAC of the House GOP leadership, announced earlier this week that it had reserved $400,000 for TV advertising in the Charlottesville and Roanoke-Lynchburg media markets for the last two weeks of the election. 

The investment is part of the network’s wave prevention strategy to stave off Democratic attempts to expand the map, and to allow the National Republican Congressional Committee to spend on competitive races. 

Republicans have a registration advantage in this district, which stretches from Northern Virginia to the North Carolina border. But even though Trump announced a $2 million statewide television buy in Virginia beginning this week, the state as a whole looks out of reach for him. 

“With undefined candidates and a volatile presidential race, it seems like a district potentially susceptible to the political winds of the environment,” one GOP operative said of Hurt’s seat.

Democrats haven’t made this seat a target. But they see it as a race that could break late for them. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put Dittmar on its Red to Blue List in late September. 

[Roll Call’s 2016 Election Guide: House]

She has raised more than double what Garrett has, and there’s a solid Democratic base in Charlottesville that, with Clinton’s dominance in the state, could push her over the edge. 

A recent Democratic poll showed Trump leading Clinton 46 to 42 percent in this district, down from a 9-point lead in July. In the survey, conducted Oct. 10-12 by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research for the DCCC, Dittmar trailed Garrett by 6 points, 41 to 47 percent. That’s a closer margin than in July, when she trailed by 10 points. 

But Republicans are looking at more optimistic data for them. An internal poll conducted last weekend by Meeting Street Research for Garrett’s campaign gave him a 50 to 39 percent lead. Garrett had a 30 percent favorable to 14 percent unfavorable rating, while Dittmar’s favorables and unfavorables were tied at 22 percent each. The polling release did not include presidential numbers.

Garrett, an Army veteran, has received financial support from most GOP members of the Virginia delegation and from conference leadership as well as from Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the Freedom Caucus.

EMILY’s List, End Citizens United PAC, and the PAC formed by the New Democratic Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats in the House, are backing Dittmar, a mediator and former president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

But whether Dittmar has a chance on election night will likely come down to just how narrow a margin Trump wins here.

“Even if things are not going well for Trump on election night, he’s still likely to carry that district,” which will likely spell good news for Garrett, a Virginia GOP operative said.