With all the chaos surrounding the election results, other questions have been ignored. How was Thomas able to stem the tide of energized Democrats to stay competitive in a district that voted for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam the same day and has been pretty evenly split between parties in other recent elections?
It is no secret that the Virginia governor’s race was viewed as a test of voter sentiment toward the president and a Trump-style governor’s campaign. Many media outlets interpreted Republican candidate Ed Gillespie’s loss, and the party’s near-loss of control in the House, to be a result of anti-Trump sentiment. But other Republicans like Steve Bannon painted his loss as a result of not embracing Trump’s messaging enough.
I spoke with Thomas to find out his strategy for campaigning as a conservative in a purple district, why non-incumbent Republicans struggled across the board, and how he addressed concerns about the president on the campaign trail. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Taylor Hosking: What would you say is different about running as a conservative in northern Virginia bordering a district that typically votes Democratic in House races?
Bob Thomas: I think one of the advantages I had is that I’m actually elected now on the Stafford County Board of Supervisors. I’m completing my sixth year. So I’ve built a reputation for working across the aisle and being open to all constituents not just the ones who donate to me or agree with everything I do. For instance, the supervisor who used to be in my seat before me was a Democrat and I’ve often called him for advice. He’s been helping me move things along behind the scenes. If you look at the numbers, we don’t have hard data yet, but Governor Northam won the district by over three points which means there were probably some people who voted blue on the top of the ticket and then crossed over and maybe saw something in me that my predecessor had. The outgoing speaker of the House of Delegates was in the seat previous to me and he was, in the district anyway, known for having Democrat friends and trying to do what’s best for everybody. I’ve always tried to do the same thing and I think that might just have been enough to help us out.
Hosking: What did you make of how close your race became and the surprising number of flipped seats in the state? Did you get any sense on the campaign trail that Democratic voters were feeling particularly energized?
Thomas: To be quite honest with you it wasn’t until election day. As an elected official I usually stand at the polls and greet voters whether I’m on the ballot or not for the past six or seven years. Having done that you kind of get a feel for who the normal voters are and who the ones are that only vote for presidential elections. On election day I was seeing a lot of people that I don’t normally see. It was a brilliant turnout strategy from the Democrats all across the state. They found everybody who only normally votes presidential and they had their reasons to go to them and beg them to come to the polls. Brilliantly enough, that’s exactly what happened. Going into election night no pollster would’ve gotten that right because those are people that would not be considered likely voters.