In Virginia, Democrats have a fantastic chance of flipping both chambers of the legislature this fall, with some excellent candidates running against the most vulnerable Republicans. But as with everywhere else, they shouldn’t be happy with narrow majorities. Good news: A handful of candidates in rural areas have teamed up to expand the map and give Democrats a real fighting chance of taking more seats, pooling their resources under the banner Rural GroundGame.
Elizabeth Alcorn is one of those candidates, running in the state House of Delegates’ 58th district. We spoke with her this week about her campaign.
Alcorn has spent her entire career, first as a dentist and now as a small farmer, involved in her community, volunteering her time and energy to addressing the problems plaguing rural America. She’s worked in endless medical clinics and advised Medicaid boards, providing services and expertise that addressed the symptoms of rapidly expanding economic and political stratification.
When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Alcorn decided that instead of addressing the ongoing symptoms, she was going to step up and help cure the cause of the national illness head-on.
“When that happened, I understood exactly why it happened; it made perfect sense why he got elected,” Alcorn tells Progressives Everywhere. “I live in a rural area and rural America has been ignored by the Democratic Party for decades. Democrats have given up on rural America and that’s why Trump is in power. So I said, if we want to take our country back, we have to step up and be there and run for these offices.”
Alcorn moved to the rural Charlottesville area in 2000, and her 58th district in the Virginia House of Delegates has been represented by Republican Rob Bell since he was elected 2001. Between 2007 through 2015, Bell faced just one Democratic challenger (in 2009), which was in part a function of the state’s notoriously gerrymandered maps — which Bell himself was in charge of drawing.
Bell built himself an unfair advantage that discouraged competition, which in turn allowed him to cast votes that blocked bipartisan criminal justice reform and other popular bills that had support on both sides of the aisle.
Still, not running candidates is a cardinal sin for a political party, because it only exacerbates the cultural divide, especially in an increasingly divided nation.
“If there’s not a Democrat in your community talking to you, knocking on your doors, talking to you at forums and at the grocery store, the void is quickly filled by Republicans, Fox News, conservative media and whatever their talking points are,” Alcorn says. “There are no choices.”
Grassroots Democrats began to fight back and provide some choices in 2017; in the 58th district, the unconditional surrender ended with the uphill battle waged by Kellen Squire, a Democrat who Alcorn assisted behind the scenes. Now, she’s stepping to the forefront and trying to fill the void herself, knocking on those doors and shaking hands at grocery stores in Alberlene County and the surrounding areas, utilizing the skills she learned dealing with patients to discuss the larger pain points her would-be constituents are experiencing.
Fittingly, the cost of healthcare seems to be the number one issue facing those voters. Albemarle County, which makes up 40% of her district, has the highest cost of healthcare premiums in the country, as well as a massive shortage of hospital beds.
“We don’t have opioid treatments in our community and that’s a problem,” she says. “Mental health care is not available and you know, that affects school issues, that affects law enforcement and it affects the quality of the communities.”
Compounding the problems is the UVA Hospital system’s medical debt collection scandal, which is currently rocking the area and highlighting the costs beyond the monthly premiums. Not that those aren’t outrageous, either — Alcorn says she and her husband, who as small business owners buy their own health insurance, saw their premiums skyrocket to $6080 a month thanks to a local healthcare monopoly’s dirty practices.
Alcorn has been involved in a consumer group investigation over the last 18 months, which she alleges has uncovered severe malfeasance and political cronyism in the State Corporation Commission. The organization, which is in part supposed to regulate healthcare providers and rates, has looked the other way as prices have skyrocketed, mimicking what’s happening with the commission’s lax enforcement with utility rates in the state.
The Dominion Energy issue is a hot-button topic for rural voters, as is the stunning lack of broadband internet in their less populous parts of the state.
Unfortunately, the Virginia Democratic Party is still largely ignoring these districts. With its suburban victory surge in 2017, Democrats are just a few seats away from flipping both the State Senate and House of Delegates, and the most obvious races have received nearly all of the party’s attention and resources.
Unwilling to sit on the sidelines or fight alone, the candidates organized Rural GroundGame, which has proven to be a potential game-changer. The group includes ten different candidates — eight running for House of Delegates, two for State Senate — and is providing strength in numbers, in more ways than one.
“We had discussions back last winter and we realized that, gee, we’re not gonna get any help down here, and we need help,” Alcorn says. “So we banded together. We’re coordinating messaging, we’re coordinating press, we’re coordinating with issue research. We’ve hired our own professional field organizer that we’re splitting the costs for. We’re doing some joint fundraising. We felt it would give us more power in the rural areas. This is really what Democrats need to do, not just in Virginia, but all over the US, to get our message to all voters.”
It may well turn out that the candidates that the Virginia Democratic Party is zeroing in on do flip the legislature, and if that happens, it’ll be great news — again, Progressives Everywhere is really proud to have supported a number of them early on in their campaigns. But it’ll be breakthroughs by candidates like Elizabeth Alcorn and the members of Rural GroundGame that truly deliver this country out from under the toxic sway of Republicans and Fox News, so supporting them is just as crucial.