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Virginia Democrats Are Hopeful They'll Win Red Congressional District

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this fall's election, Republicans are trying to fend off further losses in the House. Ben Paviour reports on a Virginia district that could flip.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: The little town of Fork Union, Va., voted for President Trump by 3 points in 2016. Since then, residents like Ron Lewis say things have gotten worse.

RON LEWIS: As you can see, there's no businesses now. Only thing we have is a drug store and a bank.

PAVIOUR: Just this spring, a half-century-old restaurant closed its doors. Now Lewis and other locals have gathered in its parking lot to hear from Democratic congressional hopeful Cameron Webb, a man Lewis believes has the background to help turn Fork Union's tides. Webb speaks from a distance. He was treating COVID-19 patients until just a few days ago.

CAMERON WEBB: I'm a doctor, I'm a lawyer, and I'm a professor at the University of Virginia. And I know y'all are looking at me like I'm too young to do all that. Listen, I'm 37 years old, and Black don't crack. And that's the reason that it works that way.

(LAUGHTER)

WEBB: But anyway...

PAVIOUR: In 2015, Webb added a White House fellowship to his resume. When President Trump took office, Webb says his desk was moved to the hallway.

WEBB: I joke, they made the biggest mistake they could of 'cause they left an extrovert in the hallway. So all I did is started walking around every day.

PAVIOUR: Webb says he was able to find common ground with Republicans. It's a strategy he's now taking to the campaign trail in a district Trump won by 11 points. Several polls now show Webb with a slight lead.

WEBB: It's in play. It's more than in play.

PAVIOUR: Dave Wasserman edits the Cook Political Report, which now classifies the race as a tossup.

DAVE WASSERMAN: Democrats landed perhaps their best candidate of the cycle anywhere in the country in Cameron Webb.

PAVIOUR: Wasserman says Webb is driving Democratic enthusiasm deep in Trump country. It's a trend he's seen across the U.S.

WASSERMAN: Places like suburban Indianapolis and St. Louis and San Antonio, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Omaha - these are all places where Republicans could lose seats.

PAVIOUR: Democrats like Webb hold a large fundraising edge in close House races. Due to retirements, Republicans are also defending almost three times as many open seats. Webb is running for one of them. It opened up after the sitting congressman, Republican Denver Riggleman, lost his party's nomination after he officiated a gay marriage.

WASSERMAN: Republicans have gone through essentially a civil war within their own party.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah...

PAVIOUR: The GOP projected a unified front at a pig roast in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The speakers included Bob Good, a former Liberty University athletics director who's the party's nominee to take on Webb. The self-described biblical conservative takes a dim view of Democrats.

BOB GOOD: The Democrat Party, including my opponent, frankly, is the party of death. They are the party of abortion at any time, at any reason up to the moment of birth.

PAVIOUR: Meanwhile, Webb has touted his medical expertise during the pandemic. He's one of more than half a dozen doctors running for Congress this year. Good dismisses that background.

GOOD: That's what we need is another doctor running our government, by the way.

PAVIOUR: Another issue that's come up is racial justice. Good says Webb is a radical for supporting Black Lives Matter. But in a district where 1 in 5 people are Black, voter Ron Lewis in Fork Union says Webb's background gives him an edge.

LEWIS: Because we've never had a Black person to stand up for this particular community or this county before.

PAVIOUR: Democrats briefly held the seat in 2008 with the help of Black voters. But Republicans have won every election since then. This year and this president have scrambled the old math and put some parts of Trump country back in play.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.