Alcorn - Rural Groundgame

TYLER HAMMEL/THE DAILY PROGRESS

Elizabeth Alcorn, Democratic candidate for the 58th District House seat, talks with Greg Dillard, a resident of Greene County, about issues her campaign seeks to address. Alcorn is a member of the Rural Groundgame movement.

STANARDSVILLE — After driving up a long dirt road in her Toyota Prius, Elizabeth Alcorn stands on the porch of a stranger, a smile on her face and ready to pass out campaign literature. She’s gotten used to the process by now, she said, and averages about 500 doors a week, to varying success.

“In a rural community like Greene, the homes are spread pretty widely, which can make campaigning complicated,” the Democratic candidate for the 58th House District said. “But it’s important to get this face-to-face contact and talk to the voters. Some of them haven’t heard directly from a General Assembly candidate in years.”

The 58th District, which covers Greene County and parts of Albemarle, Fluvanna and Rockingham counties, has been held by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, since 2002.

An initially shy voter answers the door, slowly opening it up and engaging more as Alcorn talks about some of the issues important to her campaign: protecting voter rights, ending a “school to prison pipeline” and finding better ways to fund public education.

The woman said she went to Burley High School in Charlottesville during segregation because there were no black high schools in Greene. She said that as a voter, education is a high priority for her.

“We lose teachers all the time in this district because of the pay rates,” Alcorn said after the visit. “It’s a shame, because we’re never going to build these districts up if we can’t staff our schools.”

With the 58th District election not viewed as competitive, she and nine other Democrats running for the General Assembly have united to more effectively campaign in solidly red parts of Virginia.

After meeting earlier this year in Richmond at a training session for Democrats, the candidates formed Rural Groundgame as a way to pool staff and other resources while campaigning.

Because the races are not seen as highly competitive, less money has been poured into them, said Jennifer Kitchen, who is running against Republican Chris Runion in the 25th District, which includes parts of Albemarle, Augusta and Rockingham counties. The seat is currently held by Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, who opted to run for Augusta clerk of court.

“I was kind of shocked that there wasn’t already a network or group set up for candidates like us. The training was geared toward urban communities, places where you can knock on more than 100 doors at one stop,” Kitchen said. “Being an organizer, I helped get us together and work out a plan for how we could implement some of these suggestions for rural communities.”

Still, there are some challenges facing Democrats in rural communities that can’t be solved easily, such as voter apathy, she said.

After years of Republican representation, Democratic voters in red districts have lost hope that a Democrat can be elected, Kitchen said.

“We pray for a sunny day because, historically, rural Democrats are unlikely to show up at the polls if the weather is bad,” she said. “I think that attitude is changing; we’re certainly working to change it.”

Candidates have raised funds via ActBlue, a service that focuses on small donations for progressive candidates. While most of the Central Virginia Democratic candidates have been outraised by their opponents, they have seen healthy numbers of small donations, according to recently filed campaign finance reports.

Though these areas historically have been solidly Republican, many of the Democratic candidates prefer not to look at the districts as red or blue.

Tim Hickey, an educator running in the 59th District, which covers all of Buckingham, Appomattox and Campbell counties and parts of Albemarle and Nelson counties, said he prefers to look at the districts as communities with shared issues — and, hopefully, shared solutions.

While the Rural Groundgame candidates have their own individual platforms, Hickey said various issues pervade all of their districts, namely access to high-quality and affordable health care, broadband access and climate change.

“There are huge barriers to health care, which is the issue that comes up most often,” he said. “Some of the more rural parts don’t have access to hospitals or even internet. Pair that with some of the highest [insurance] premiums in the state, and you’ve got a widespread issue.”

Though running a tight schedule between his job and family, Hickey, who is running against Del. Matt Fariss, R-Rustberg, said he makes it a goal to knock on doors whenever he has free time.

“It’s important to me that these rural communities feel they’re being heard and represented,” Hickey said.

No matter the outcome of the Nov. 5 elections, the Democratic candidates said they hope the work of Rural Groundgame continues.

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