On Election Day, while a majority of the focus in the Commonwealth is placed on the results of its 11 congressional districts and the Senate race, one under-mentioned contest will decide the balance of power in the House of Delegates. In Tuesday’s special election to fill the 8th House District in the southwestern part of the state, the battle is between Republican Joe McNamara, a longtime Roanoke County Board of Supervisors member, and Democrat Carter Turner, a former professor and administrator at Radford University.
As the Republicans in the state legislature are grappling with a one-member 51-49 majority, flipping the balance of power is not just a national narrative, but a vital scenario that could possibly change the entire direction of the Commonwealth.
McNamara has conveyed to voters in the area, which consists of Salem, Craig County, and parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties, that as a supervisor, small business owner, and certified public accountant, he has the budgeting and governing expertise needed on Bank Street in Richmond. He boasts a two decade-long record of abiding by a conservative fiscal plan, reiterating that he has never voted for a tax increase, has lowered taxes in Roanoke, and has helped reduce the county’s debt. His campaign has centered on “reining in government” and “not funding the wish list.”
“From an issue perspective, I check the Republican boxes, if you will, but what really makes me tick is I like efficiency in government, and we’ve done some really great things in Roanoke County,” he said in a report from The Roanoke Times.
Turner, meanwhile, and quite interestingly, is not focusing on a traditional Democratic message. Even in his campaign literature there are no designations of his political affiliation.
“I’m a Democrat,” Turner said. Nevertheless, as he explains, “I think we’ve got too much of that going on with people just sizing you up based on that letter, and I think it’s a better entry point into having a conversation about what I stand for and what I want to do.”
When it comes to the issue of the Second Amendment, people in the area typically take a “hands off” approach to legislation. For example, “leave us and our guns alone.”
McNamara has vowed to protect Second Amendment rights, which is par for the course for the Republican agenda.
Turner, on the other hand, carries the immense baggage of his party on his shoulders and their march to place burdensome restrictions on law-abiding gun owners. Although Turner recently sent a mailer about guns specifically to homes of Republican voters – with himself camouflage clad on a hunting trip – he is opposed to gun modifications such as bump stocks, supports background checks on all private sales, and “common sense gun safety reform,” which is fairly politically ambiguous in nature.
On the issue of abortion, Republican McNamara is opposed, whereas Democrat Turner promises to protect the “right” to the procedure.
Both, however, have voiced their opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), citing concerns such as harm to the environment and the way officials responded to questions raised by the board of supervisors. McNamara said, the MVP had “done a terrible job in working with us. It doesn’t make me against pipelines in general and things we have to have, but there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, and this was definitely the wrong way.”
On his campaign website, Turner remarked, “If elected, I will do everything I can stand up for property owners. I will do everything I can to limit the use of eminent domain for corporate profits.”
Unmistakably, the biggest issue of the 8th District race is the future of Interstate 81 and the long-awaited improvements to the area’s transportation artery. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has identified $4 billion in work engineers believe is needed, but that list was later pared down to $2 billion worth of improvements. While both candidates agree that improvements must be made, where they differ is on how to pay for them.
Turner says that all funding options — tolls for commercial and passenger vehicles, a fuel tax, and regional sales tax — should be on the table. He explained that the “uncomfortable reality” for I-81 improvements is that the cost is going to go to residents. “People need to be willing to have some skin in it,” he said.
McNamara has come out against any increase in taxes, adding that he is disappointed that VDOT did not study rail as a way to alleviate traffic on the interstate and that the state-sponsored study too limited by its focus on simply adding lanes to I-81.
“We need to be thinking bigger than that,” McNamara said. “How do we make it a more user-friendly roadway? How do you expand its capacity without putting lane miles in? You expand it by taking things that are on it off.”
McNamara has also sent out a mailer to area residents highlighting his role in improving the interstate, pointing out that as supervisor he voted to support an effort to build third lanes along I-81 north and south throughout the Roanoke Valley.
Coming off a 15-seat gain in 2017, Democrats will be charging to flip the strong Republican district blue. Therefore, not only will the 8th District House race decide the representation in the lower house of the General Assembly for Salem, Craig County, and parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties, it will decide the statewide balance of power in the House of Delegates.