By Faith E. Pinho

Ben Cline, the incumbent candidate in Virginia’s 24th district House of Delegates race, handily won re-election Tuesday night. With 38 of 47 precincts reporting, Cline had nearly 71 percent of the vote versus 28 percent for his opponent, independent candidate John Winfrey.

Winner Ben Cline holds his daughter, while he and Rockbridge County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias check election results at Salerno’s in Lexington. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger.

Cline, 45, is the 15-year incumbent for the seat, representing Lexington, Buena Vista, all of Rockbridge and Bath counties and parts of Augusta and Amherst counties. Cline dominated in most of those jurisdictions but Winfrey carried Lexington with 60.1 percent of the vote.

“It’s an exciting evening. We’re all celebrating our win,” Cline said. “But it’s a mixed bag tonight, because they’ve called the governor’s race for Ralph Northam. Hopefully, we’ll try to get along, but his views on the economy and…priorities are very different from the majority in the House. So we’ll have our work cut out for us going forward.”

Cline has represented the 24th district since the 2002 special election, in which he ran to fill the seat of Vance Wilkins, a delegate who resigned following a political scandal. In the eight elections since, Cline has won three unopposed. He faced opponents in five races and won all in landslides.

Winfrey, 82, is a retired economics professor at Washington and Lee University, and has never served in government before. He said he decided to enter the race this summer when he learned that Cline would run unopposed. Though Winfrey has received nominal support from the local Democrats and says he often votes blue, the independent candidate said he is campaigning for both sides.

“I think running as an independent, I can say, I’m listening to you,” Winfrey said in an interview with the Rockbridge Report last month. “You might not think the Democrats are listening to you and you’re probably pretty sure that Republicans are not listening to you, but I’m listening to you.”

Winfrey hit the campaign trail this summer and fall, handing out hundreds of lawn signs, riding in the Buena Vista Labor Day parade, attending Democratic party dinners and more. Cline has been more reserved, with a few public forum visits in the district.

Cline’s positions on healthcare was a major point of contention for Winfrey. Cline voted down the Medicaid expansion in April and has spoken in support of President Donald Trump’s anti-Obamacare measures.

“Health care,” Cline told the Rockbridge Report last month, “has gone in the wrong direction, in my view, after the enactment of the ACA, or Obamacare, because it forced prices higher, limited options, and forced insurers to eliminate certain policies for certain people.”

For Winfrey, the Medicaid expansion was an easy way to help families. Winfrey has served with groups from his church, Lexington Presbyterian Church, to help advise and serve families who live on the edge of poverty – many of whom Winfrey says were affected by the expansion shutdown.

“I know of some families that have been turned down with the Medicaid expansion and they’re hurting,” Winfrey said. “We’re doing some horrible things to poor people at every level, the federal level, state level and local level. And Ben Cline is only part of the story.”

Cline’s legislative priorities in the last 15 years have included public safety and education. He has introduced legislation that would make it a felony to assault a police or campus security officer. In 2009, Cline fought the closing of the Natural Bridge Juvenile Corrections Center and advocated for stronger accountability of inmates with gang affiliations. In addition to criminal justice measures, Cline pushed legislation that would promote online college courses for adults seeking higher ed. He also supported opening new branches for the Central Virginia Community College and Dabney S. Lancaster Community College.

Cline has said that he will continue to promote education and transparency with his next two years in office.

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