Emmett Hanger survived one of the toughest tests of his long political career Tuesday, overcoming a challenge from the right in the Republican primary for the 24th Senatorial District.
Hanger, 70, of Mount Solon, defeated Tina Freitas of Culpeper to win the Republican nomination for a chance at a seventh four-year state Senate term representing the district, which consists of Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta, Greene and Madison counties, and parts of Rockingham and Culpeper counties.
Districtwide, Hanger received 11,122 votes to Freitas' 8,268, about a 57.3% to 42.6% split, based on unofficial results as reported by the Virginia Department of Elections. He will face Democrat Annette Hyde of Madison County during the Nov. 5 general election.
“It was very gratifying the show of support today,” said Hanger, speaking Tuesday night from a victory celebration at The Depot Grille in Staunton. “Obviously, it was a very tough campaign. … A very good feeling coming out as the victor.”
Looking forward to the general election, Hanger said he wouldn’t give his full attention to the campaign in full force until after Labor Day. He promised to promote a legislative agenda that will include further work on mental health and health care reforms, including implementing the next phase of that Medicaid expansion.
Hanger said he also wants to continue efforts on minimizing the gerrymandering of legislative districts.
Staunton's John Avoli won the other GOP race in which Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County residents were asked to help decide during Tuesday's voting.
Avoli defeated Dave Bourne, 4,873 votes to 3,211 votes, a 60.3% to 39.7% margin, to win the Republican 20th House District nomination, according to the unofficial results. He will face Waynesboro Democrat Jennifer Lewis in November.
The district consists of Waynesboro, Staunton and parts of Augusta and Nelson counties and Highland County.
There was no local Democratic primary because the party’s nominations for the state Senate and House of Delegates had already been determined.
Arguably, one of the most watched primary races in Virginia pitted longtime incumbent Hanger against Freitas, who hammered away at the Augusta County lawmaker’s record, contending his votes on Medicaid expansion, gun bills and taxes were too liberal for the district.
Hanger mounted a spirited counterattack, claiming Freitas wildly distorted his voting record in her campaign to keep him from retaining the seat he’s held since winning the office in 1995.
Ultimately, Freitas' challenge failed to gain the needed traction among Hanger's more populous home turf to win. In Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County, Hanger piled up an 8,063-to-4,463 advantage, or more than 64.3% to about 35.6%.
Freitas scored well at home, winning Culpeper County 1,274 votes to 547, and also won the majority of the vote in Greene and Madison counties. Hanger came out on top in Rockingham County by more than 400 votes.
Avoli, now the GOP candidate to replace retiring Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, had a similar primary battle with Bourne, who accused the former Staunton councilman and mayor of being too liberal for the 20th House District.
Avoli won in each of the district's five localities and showed particular strength in his hometown, where he took 1,612 votes to Bourne's 884. In Waynesboro, he won 1,141 votes to 653 votes, and in Augusta County, he won 1,795 to 1,437 votes.
Turnout Tuesday, although anemic compared to most general elections, actually fared better than many election officials had thought. In Waynesboro, about 14% of registered voters came out while Augusta County had about 17% turnout, according to voter registrar offices in the two localities.
"It was much better than we had anticipated," said Waynesboro Registrar Lisa Jeffers.
Jerry Kerby of Waynesboro, campaigning for Avoli outside Ward D, said turnout as of noontime had been stronger than he had expected.
“I wish more people came out to vote,” said the 73-year-old military veteran, but added he was pleased with the positive attitude among the voters he had spoken with Tuesday.
Late in the afternoon, Hanger came to Waynesboro Public Library, the city’s Ward B precinct, to talk to last-minute voters.
He acknowledged the bruising primary battle, saying his opponent had waged an “aggressive” campaign. Freitas’ campaign materials, he said, amounted to “a real hit piece on me.”
“I don’t do a lot of negative campaigning, don’t like to participate in that at all,” Hanger said, but added he felt he had to respond to what he called was Freitas’ “personal attacks.”
Hanger said trends during the day’s early voting suggested turnout might be lower than when he faced a primary challenge in 2015, which he said didn’t bode well for his candidacy. That seemed to turn around as the day wore on, Hanger said, leaving him more upbeat with less than a hour left at the polls.
Avoli, greeting voters outside Stuarts Draft Elementary School polling location about 11 a.m., said he began his day in his hometown of Staunton when polls opened at 6 a.m. before moving onto Waynesboro. He was planning to finish his day in Buffalo Gap.
“We feel very confident but you never know, you have to wait for the results,” Avoli said. “You either go on vacation or start the whole process again.”
Avoli said he felt he had run a strong, clean campaign.
“I didn’t do any negative campaign of any kind,” he said. “You meet people, talk to people, put your agenda out to people and go from there.”
Avoli, who was on Staunton City Council from 1990 until 2006, served as mayor from 1992 until 2006.
Bourne, who lives just outside the city limits of Staunton, operates Dave Bourne Bail Bonds Inc. in Verona, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
On the issues, Avoli and Bourne both stressed their conservative positions, although Bourne tried to paint Avoli as a liberal based on his time on Staunton council.
But in his campaign, Avoli said that he would “be a champion for the unborn and vote to defeat any legislation making third term abortions legal” if elected.
A former high school principal and director of Valley Career and Technical Center, Avoli also said he wants to expand workforce development programs through the community college system and limit standardized testing in public schools.
No stranger to campaigns, having run successfully for several council terms, Avoli said the size of the 20th District was a bit of a challenge.
“If you don’t have the volunteer base … the boots on the ground” to mount an effective campaign, he said. “I’ve had a really, really great group of people.”
Bourne, 52, made his way to greet voters in Stuarts Draft during the afternoon after starting his day in the Beverley Manor District where he voted. A first-time candidate, Bourne said the experience had been “absolutely enjoyable,” having knocked on more than 2,500 doors.
Having done everything he could to get the word out about his candidacy during the campaign, he said it “was to the voters” at that point.
The day’s voting was sporadic, as is the case with most primaries. Although still light, turnout appeared more brisk at Waynesboro’s Ward D in Westminster Presbyterian Church. The biggest of the city’s four wards with 4,198 registered voters, Ward D had turnout of about 9% — 377 voters — by noontime, according to election officials.
Andrew Shifflett, Ward D chief election officer, said there had been a steady trickle of voters through the morning and, based on his experience as a precinct officer since 2001, turnout was relatively good for a nonpresidential primary.
“Better than most when you take out presidential primaries,” Shifflett said.
There had been no reports of snags in polling during the day, he said. This is the third election in which Waynesboro has employed “poll pads.”
The pads allow voters to insert their Virginia driver’s license, much like a credit card, to pull up all their registration information. The machines have greatly streamlined the process, poll workers said.
This year's general election, in which every seat in both the state Senate and House is up for grabs, figures to be hotly contested. The GOP holds control of both chambers, but by just two seats in each body.