CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — At the end of a tour of his sprawling printing plant, businessman Lynwood “Root” Napier looked Republican Tom Garrett up and down and reasoned that he would do all right in his campaign for Congress.
“That is, if Trump doesn’t take you down,” he said with a chuckle. “Have you ever seen a bigger idiot?”
In another year, no one would question the dominance of Garrett, a fast-talking state senator and Army veteran with a libertarian streak, over Democrat Jane Dittmar, a soft-spoken professional mediator, as they vie for a seat held by retiring Rep. Robert Hurt (R).
But sagging poll numbers for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump have put Virginia’s 5th District in play for the first time since President Barack Obama swept a Democrat into office here in 2008.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that it is Trump,” said Pattie Cooper-Jones, a supervisor in Prince Edward County and Dittmar supporter. “People are just tired of that ignorance, they really are.”
The question now is whether Hillary Clinton, who is enjoying a double-digit lead in the state according to several polls, has enough strength to propelDittmar past the Republican in a district anchored by rural conservative counties that never recovered from manufacturing job losses of the 1990s.
Trump remains popular in much of central Virginia, according to recent surveys but Republicans are worried enough that a conservative advocacy group recently announced plans to spend $400,000 against Dittmar in the final two weeks of the campaign.
Internal polls commissioned by both campaigns show Dittmar trailing Garrett with varying margins. Garrett’s poll says he’s up by 11; Dittmar’s puts him ahead by 6 points.
Dittmar has raised twice as much money as Garrett, leading the University of Virginia Center for Politics — which is located in the district — to move the district from “likely Republican” to the more competitive “leans Republican” category.
“Garrett is still the favorite, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that he could lose,” said Geoffrey Skelley an analyst at the center.
Any Republican starts with an immediate advantage based on the largely rural character of the district.
Taking a huge triangle-shaped bite out of the center of the state, the district runs from Fauquier in the north, down to the Shenandoah Valley and through Appomattox before unspooling into Southside Virginia along the North Carolina border. In all, it includes 23 counties and cities and is bigger by land mass than the state of New Jersey. Trump won it with 39 percent in the primary.
To win, Dittmar, the former chairwoman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, needs to follow the model that carried Democrat Tom Perriello to victory eight years ago.
Perriello benefited from Obama’s coattails in liberal Charlottesville and Albemarle while the incumbent, Virgil H. Goode Jr., fumbled. Goode was accused of race-bating by modifying a photo of Perriello to make him appear Muslim. He also had lashed out at a decision by the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), to use the Koran at his swearing-in ceremony.
Perriello squeaked into office by a margin of 727 votes, but the Republican presidential nominee at the time, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, still won the district, as did Republican Mitt Romney four years later.
Polls give Clinton a sizable statewide lead and the campaign was cheered by reports last week that Trump pulled some resources out of Virginia, but critics note Clinton lacks Obama’s ability to inspire African American voters and college students to turn out in droves.
And the last round of redistricting in 2011 made the district safer for a Republican by adding parts of conservative Fauquier County and pushing out blue-tilting Martinsville.
When a 2005 video surfaced in which Trump bragged about groping women , Republicans across the state and country — including Rep. Barbara Comstock of northern Virginia — called on him to drop out of the race.
Not so in the 5th District, where voters have stuck with Trump so much that Garrett could benefit from their enthusiasm.
Garrett said he doesn’t condone Trump’s behavior yet still plans to vote for him.
“It comes down to a choice of two visions for American, the Republican vision and the Democrat vision,” he said. “The Republican vision is far better. He’s the nominee.”
Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) said residents of Southside Virginia have been disillusioned with politics since Bill Clinton was president and blame him for trade agreements that cost the region manufacturing jobs.
Once know as a hub for textile, furniture and tobacco production, today the region has some of the highest employment and poverty rates in the state.
“In Southside, what you see is we have been suffering much longer than just since the recession of 2007,” Stanley said. “We have put that squarely on the President Clinton administration and Washington in general.”
Dittmar has tried to erode Garrett’s natural base with an ad that says he favors the contentious issue of uranium mining in the rural southern county of Pittsylvania, which is home to the nation’s largest uranium deposit.
Supporters say mining would reinvigorate the struggling region with jobs and tax revenue; opponents say the potential harm to drinking water and agriculture isn’t worth the financial boon.
The ad implies Garrett wants the overturn of the state’s 34-year ban on uranium mining because he introduced a bill setting up a nuclear fuel research authority that easily passed the General Assembly and was signed into law.
“I think to call that disingenuous is an understatement. I’d say it’s a lie,” Garrett said in a recent debate. Dittmar refused to budge and noted he took donations from the industry.
In other ways, Dittmar, 60, a past president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, has focused on issues that won’t alienate conservative voters: job creation, renewable energy and improving Internet access by expanding broadband.
Garrett, 44, a former commonwealth’s attorney in Louisa County, talks about reducing regulations and the size of government.
He was the only state senator to vote against the budget in 2015 — questioning $1.5 million for yurts at state parks — and the only one to abstain in 2016. Garrett pushed to make medical marijuana available to sick children and to repeal of the state’s anti-sodomy law. He has an A rating from the National Rifle Association; she has an F.
Garrett made headlines for reading aloud a graphic rape scene on the floor of the Senate during a debate about a bill that some said would have censored seminal works such as Toni Morrison novel “The Bluest Eye.” The legislation passed the GOP-controlled legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
As much as the candidates have debated local issues, the national climate infiltrated the race last when a Trump supporter legally carrying a gun stationed himself outside a Dittmar campaign office in Fluvanna County in a daylong protest.
When Dittmar encouraged any of her volunteers who felt intimidated to call police, her campaign’s Facebook page was bombarded with thousands of messages, many of them obscene.
On Wednesday, Garrett showed up at a press event called by Dittmar and joined her call for a more civil tone in the final weeks of the campaign.
The episode helped Dittmar raise money and raised the profile of a sleeper contest where Republicans have the edge.
“Trump is helpful in Southside and hurts a lot in Charlottesville and that’s how it always is in the 5th,” said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report. “ The challenge for Democrats is there’s a lot more of Southside than there is Charlottesville.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.