There have been times when I’ve worked a polling place on primary day and the only sound you hear are crickets chirping. Only a handful of people actually show up to vote. Five to 10 percent turnouts aren’t all that unusual. Nonetheless, decisions made in these low turnout contests can have profound consequences. That could be the case in the Republican primary on June 11 to select a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates seat in the 28th District.
The House is split 51 to 49 in favor of the Republicans. That means if one Republican seat switches to the Democrats then the body is tied and a power-sharing agreement will have to be negotiated. If two or more seats switch to the Democrats, they will run the chamber. That means a whole host of bills and issues supported by Democrats could make it to a vote and even pass. It could change the state’s entire political dynamic.
What all this means is that who wins the primaries and who faces off against whom in the fall matters a great deal. That’s why the Republican primary in the 28th District has become so important. This district covers a swath of Stafford mainly east of Interstate 95, as well as part of the city of Fredericksburg.
The district has historically been Republican and was held by former Speaker of the House Bill Howell from 1987 until he retired in 2017. However, its Republican tilt was challenged in the 2017 election, when Republican Bob Thomas defeated Democrat Josh Cole by only 75 votes. That’s tight.
Although Cole has been hoping for a rematch with Thomas this fall, some Republicans want a different candidate. Thomas has had a moderate voting record and most notably joined a number of other Republicans in voting in favor of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. This earned him the enmity of some of his party’s most conservative activists.
In his defense, many in this swing district thought the expansion was a good idea. What’s more, Thomas sponsored a bill that allows localities to regain their rights to negotiate proffers with developers as a means of offsetting the costs of development. But, to some in his party, he is still just too liberal.
Paul Milde, a former member of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, who ran against Thomas for the GOP nomination in 2017 again is challenging Thomas in the primary this year. At first this didn’t look like much of a contest. Thomas is the incumbent and has all the press and Milde wasn’t that well known outside the area of Stafford he represented on the board. But things have started to unravel for Thomas, and Milde seems to be picking up steam. The race has also taken on a nasty tone.
Milde’s campaign, not pulling any punches, has dubbed Thomas as something of a Democratic Party fellow traveler. One of Milde’s mailers had the caption, in all caps, “Hypocrite,” and focused on Thomas’ purported transgressions against conservative orthodoxy. Then, perhaps in response, the Thomas campaign dove into the mud and resurrected Milde’s criminal convictions from 1986 and 1994.
That may sound like a deal-breaker, but it’s probably not. These convictions were raised during Milde’s successful campaigns for supervisor in 2005 and in 2009. His response was to admit his past transgressions, explain that they occurred a long time ago and that he has changed. He notes that for decades he has been living a productive and successful life.
Perhaps more so than anyone else, we Americans love a good redemption story. Thomas put a lot of effort into this line of attack. However, it could backfire. To some, Milde could look like the aggrieved party and, as a result, attract some sympathy. This, along with his strong attacks on Thomas’ voting record, puts Milde in a position to potentially win the nomination.
The Democrats are apt to like that outcome. Thomas’ moderate voting record seemed in sync with the district’s more Democratic tilt. That would have made it tough for Democrat Josh Cole to draw any sharp distinctions. Milde, on the other hand, appears far more conservative. That’s fine in the primary, but when it comes to holding this marginal district for the GOP in the fall, his views may prove too strident. Milde may win the primary, likely delighting his conservative supporters, but the Democrats might be cheering his win as well.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.