By Faith E. Pinho
Political signs line the lawns of Lexington, Rockbridge County and Buena Vista — evidence of the busyness of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee. In more liberal parts of the country, President Trump’s win last November inspired activism among liberals, but here it seems to have inspired Republicans to pour themselves into community campaigning to get out the vote this fall.
Roger Jarrell, chairman of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee since 2014, said committee members are out knocking on doors almost every day.
“It’s about turnout, making sure people are turning out, that they know about the election, that they have an absentee ballot,” said Jarrell, who was hired in January as an assistant secretary to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.
For the upcoming November elections, more than 23,000 people are registered to vote in Rockbridge County, Buena Vista and Lexington. Between 20 and 40 percent of registered voters usually show up at the polls on an off year like this one. The last off-year election in 2015 yielded a turnout of about 8,000, or around 35 percent.
This fall may bring out higher numbers, as voters are closely watching the gubernatorial race. In the 2013 gubernatorial election year, turnout was a bit higher: a little more than 10,000 Rockbridge County, Buena Vista and Lexington residents cast their votes.
Jarrell will soon be stepping down as chair to allow for a new leader, Chuck Cornell, to step in. Jarrell said his schedule as an assistant department secretary no longer allows him enough time to devote to the committee. Cornell has been a long-time member and benefactor of the committee.
Under Jarrell — and, soon, Cornell — the committee has employed all the traditional campaigning measures, including running the local committee office on Main Street, calling voters, hosting community events and organizing candidates at the annual Buena Vista Labor Day parade Sept. 4.
Lynn Wells, a retired teacher of Fairfax County and member of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee, regularly staffs the committee headquarters. He said that he hears positive feedback for gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie from voters on all sides of the political spectrum.
“They want yard signs,” Wells said. “That happens very often.”
Their candidates span November’s ballot, from Gillespie to House of Delegates incumbent Ben Cline. Other Republicans running for state office include state Sen. Jill Vogel for lieutenant governor and former Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. John Adams for the attorney general position.
“I think that people in general are looking for genuine candidates and they’ve gotten frustrated with candidates that seem too rehearsed or too ideological,” said Charles Kostelni, treasurer of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee.
The taste for unrehearsed politicians is nothing new for the Republican Party. The election of President Trump last November confirmed a base of supporters around the country who value his unchecked personality.
Residents of Rockbridge County voted for Trump over his opponent Hillary Clinton in an almost two-to-one ratio. Sixty-two percent of the county went red, while only 32 percent voted for Clinton. Buena Vista reported similar numbers, with 59 percent of the vote going to Trump and 28 percent to Clinton. In Lexington, the numbers were reversed: 61 percent of the vote went to Clinton and 31 percent to Trump.
Jarrell said the November elections motivated Republicans in the Rockbridge area to become more involved in their party’s local committee. He noted a jump in committee members after the election.
“We raised a record amount of money that year,” Jarrell said. “[We] had an extremely active committee.”
Jarrell said the committee raised almost $20,000 last year – just under the federal reporting level for local parties. The size of the committee rose to more than 60 participating members, with an even longer mailing list.
He said Republicans in the community have also expressed concern about the removal of Confederate statues and monuments around the state.
“That’s the number one,” committee member Wells said with a laugh. “That is the number one issue.”
Last week, the church where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee attended in Lexington decided to change its name from R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church to Grace Episcopal church. There have been other discussions about what to do with Confederate memorabilia on the campus of Lexington’s Virginia Military Institute.
Gillespie has said that statues should remain, but additional historical context should be included. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam said statues would be better placed in museums, but ultimately that the decision should be left to localities.
“By getting in the middle of that, Northam … motivated the Republican base in a way that I guarantee you they’re going to regret,” Jarrell said.
The committee’s treasurer Charles Kostelni is an example of how the Trump win influenced voters to become more politically involved. Kostelni joined the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee after the election and quickly rose through the ranks to become treasurer this year.
“I really mainly became involved because of my concern for the country and this recent presidential election motivated me to become involved on a local basis,” Kostelni said.
“It all made me feel that our country was at a crossroads and that if we did not start getting back to the basic things that made this country what it is, that we would lose a lot of what people have sacrificed to build.”
Note: Next Week, Rockbridge Report will report on the work of local Democratic committees.