In the weeks following the Democrats’ underdog victories in the Virginia legislature, the party has challenged the results of a number of close races in an effort to share power or gain control of the House. And one contested win has garnered a lot of interest: The 28th district in northern Virginia, where Republican Bob Thomas beat out Democrat Joshua Cole by just 82 votes in a purple district bordering a blue region of the state.
Thomas was one of three non-incumbent Republicans to win vacant seats in the November 7 elections, while Democrats unseated twelve Republicans and won four vacant seats. He ran for the vacated seat of previous Republican House Speaker Bill Howell, who won by 20 points in 2015, leading many to believe Thomas would win comfortably as well. The closeness of the race indicates his district was affected by some of the energy for Democrats, but he stayed competitive even in that environment.
In the weeks since the election, his campaign has been making headlines mostly for the controversy surrounding potential inaccuracy of the vote count. The results were certified a week late last Monday by the Virginia Board of Elections following discoveries that over 147 voters in and around the district received ballots for the wrong House race. Board officials said state law had their hands tied and Cole’s team has filed a federal lawsuit for a revote, although Thomas’s lawyers believe a revote is unlikely. Cole has also requested a recount.
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.
I’ve always been taught you run like you’re ten points down. I think a lot of people might’ve thought I was overdoing it. We went to about 244 events from the beginning of our primary to the end and raised a lot of money. A lot of people were like “your seat is going to be safe. What are you worried about?” And a lot of those people have called me now saying “thank you for campaigning.”
Hosking: Many news reports were attributing the unlikely-voter turnout to anti-Trump backlash. What did you think of that?
Thomas: Honestly, President Trump’s name did not come up that much at the doors. We knocked on over 25,000 doors and I would say just sporadically people would say ‘hey what do you think about President Trump?’ There were a couple of doors I could remember where people were really interested [in talking about Trump] and I always tried to stress to them that Richmond is so different from D.C. and we want to keep it that way. It’s not as hyper-partisan as it is up there. We just have to deal with whatever it is they say in D.C., carry out the laws in the most responsible way we can for Virginia. And every single voter left the door saying “okay, I may not be a fan of his but that makes a lot of sense.”
Our opponent didn’t mention Trump in any of the mailers that we saw. It’s probably a fair assumption that there was some push back to Trump in the high voter turnout but I can’t tell you that I really heard that at the doors.
Hosking: Why do you think Richmond is a less polarized political environment?
Thomas: One of the reasons is we only have 40 senators and 100 delegates. Because it’s so small you can actually rub elbows and get to know each other. We heard from both the minority and majority leader today at new member’s orientation and their message—for [the new House of Delegates members] unfamiliar with how it works in Richmond—was don’t believe what you’ve been told. When you get down here you’re going to realize that almost 85% of the bills that we pass almost all pass 100-0 because it’s about getting things done. We’re all on the same team here. It’s just those couple of fringe issues where we’re going to disagree and have friction but for the most part everything that gets done, even the budget, is a lot less gridlock than they have in D.C.
Hosking: What issues tend to be more divisive?
Thomas: There was a little bit of talk about sanctuary cities last year, but immigration is usually a federal issue. There are some candidates out there that like to talk about immigration a lot though. In Virginia we really haven’t raised taxes much. Thankfully we had enough economic growth to cover some of the mandatory spending increases that come every year from things like Medicaid. But I think some of the social issues divide people. I tend to be one of those people who doesn’t really care what you do with your private life. It’s not really my business.
Hosking: It sounds like some of the biggest issues that have divided the Republican Party haven’t been a part of your campaign. Is that fair to say?
Thomas: Yes, as far as this campaign. In the primary I had two opponents that were both elected previously and good campaigners. I didn’t allow staff members to utter one negative thing about them because that’s just not who I am. We avoided that in the general as well. There was some [negative] mail that [my opponent] sent during the general. But when the only bad thing your opponent has to say about you is “he took contributions from somebody who voted for things like …”, you pretty much know they realize your record is not that far off from what the electorate wants. So even with the negative mailer we thought we’re going down the right path. I’m not going to change who I am or how I operate or what I beleive in to try and win the election. If I’m the right guy then I’d be honored to do it. If not, it’s just a small moment in time where I have the opportunity to go and represent people.
Hosking: If there is a revote in your district how would you reach those energized Democratic voters? Would you approach your campaign differently?
Thomas: We don’t think there’s too much of a possibility for that. There’s no precedent for a revote. The Virginia code spells out what is proper and that is to take a contest to the House of Delegates and the Democrats would have to have some evidence to prove that something would’ve been such a large interference to change the outcome. But I think once analysis of people casting wrong ballots here and there is done it will show the race ending up around where it is right now. Because we have people that shouldn’t have voted in the district and we have people that should have. It’s almost a wash. I know the governor was on the radio today calling for a new election, but I think even a lot of them realize that’s highly unlikely.
But we would run the same campaign as far as the things that I’m passionate about, transportation is a big issue in Stafford County. Having been locally elected I know how the process works and where some of the fixes need to be and I know the legislative process. I don’t think the messaging changes. Now that we know what the strategy was on the other side we won’t be blindsided by that again.
*This article originally stated that Bob Thomas was the only non-incumbent Republican to win in Virginia. In fact, there were two others. We regret the error.