On primary day, Paul Milde, a former Stafford County Supervisor, defeated GOP incumbent Del. Bob Thomas in the Republican Primary for the 28th District House of Delegates seat. A year ago, even a few weeks ago, this seemed highly unlikely. In fact, some Republicans are still in a state of shock. Defeating incumbents in primaries is rare, and in this election season, with the Republicans desperate to hang on to their two-vote majority in the House, its rarer still. But there is one lesson all of the political watchers should have learned a long time ago. Never underestimate Paul Milde. The Republican establishment did, and they lost. Now, the Democrats, thinking Milde to be a weak candidate, are at risk of doing the same thing.
Paul has been in politics a long time. He has run in three contested Republican primaries and won two. He has been a candidate for election in three general elections and won each time. He knows how to campaign, he knows how to organize, and he has never been short on resources.
Oh yes, and then there’s this business of his criminal history. It’s been used to attack Milde in every election. However, as a campaign tactic it’s never worked. It always comes across as mean spirited and usually ends up generating sympathy for Milde. What his opponents need to learn is that every time they go this route it gives Milde a chance to tell his life story. Since it’s all about turning his life around and becoming an accomplished businessman it’s compelling.
There is also a strong belief among Democrats that Milde has cast himself as so far to the right during this recent primary that he can’t win a district that is drifting more and more Democratic. It’s a good point.
The district supported Tim Kaine last year and it voted for Barrack Obama. It’s by no means a slam dunk for the GOP. What’s more, one of Milde’s key strategies in the primary, and it worked, was to be “more Trump than Trump.” He hammered Thomas on his support for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare and fired up the pro-gun base by bringing up a vote Thomas made against allowing fire and rescue personnel to carry guns. These charges had a powerful impact with the most conservative of GOP voters. The Milde campaign knew that in a low-turnout primary, energizing the base, and they’re the most motivated voters, was what it was all about.
Now, it’s time to shift to the general election. The Democrats have a strong candidate in Josh Cole, a local minister, who came within 85 votes of taking the seat two years ago. Cole has maintained a non-stop campaign schedule ever since.
He anticipated a rematch with Thomas, but now, with Milde, he probably feels more comfortable painting his Republican opponent as too conservative and too much of an ideologue for a district that’s beginning to look more and more like other diverse districts further north.
But, not so fast.
Decades ago, the famous, if not infamous, former President Richard
Nixon offered some advice to Republican candidates in a party that was trending ever rightward. Run to the right during the primary and then tack back towards the center in the general election. Is that cynical? The answer is yes and no. In the primary a candidate wants the nomination and talks red meat issues with the party stalwarts who vote in primaries. In the general election, they can broaden their appeal by drawing on more diverse topics and strengths. That’s probably what Milde is going to do.
Also, unlike the 2017 campaign where being in favor of Medicaid expansion helped Democrats in the general, it just won’t come up in 2019. It’s ironic that it was Thomas’ vote in favor of the bill that cost him so much support with GOP voters. Presumably, the issues Milde will want to focus on are his strongest. Ones popular across a broader spectrum of voters. Namely, transportation, solving problems, and he has several strong claims to promoting regional collaboration and even the environment. He is particularly fond of recounting his accomplishments on saving the Crow’s Nest Nature Preserve.
Also, the Democrats need to remember that Milde is tireless. He will campaign night and day and seems to be able to come up with as much money as necessary. Also, with their majority on the line, even those establishment GOPers who were shocked by Milde’s victory are likely to “come home” to their party’s nominee.
However, this is still a Democratic leaning district, Milde does have a voting record to focus on, and there are still key issues and concerns that divide the candidates.
But, again, the lesson remains, that his opponents underestimate him at their own peril.