In the only competitive House of Delegates race in Southwestern Virginia, as well as the only competitive race in a Virginia college-town district, Incumbent Delegate Chris Hurst (D) prepares for the fight for his life.
Facing Pearisburg Town Council member Jason Ballard (R), the Hurst campaign is hoping that young voter turnout in the Blacksburg area will not decrease due to the expulsion of Trump from the White House. In the 2017 elections, liberal-leaning voters mobilized to stick it to the then-incumbent President. That same year, Hurst handily beat incumbent Republican Joseph Yost by 8.86% in what was predicted to be a close race.
But the Chris Hurst of 2021 is not the Chris Hurst of 2017. Fresh off of the local television station, the Hurst of 2017 had sky-high name recognition that Yost could not compete with. Usually, candidates for public office on local TV stations do well electorally; one needn’t look further than Mark Ronchetti (R), ran ahead of President Trump last year in the Senatorial race by 4.69% in what was seen as a solidly Democratic race.
In 2019, Hurst had an unexpectedly closer win than his first run against Forrest Hite (R), who raised only $101,557 to Hurst’s $701,667. Hurst beat Hite by 7.17%, a 1.69% decrease in margin of victory from 2017.
In addition to losing his status as the “fresh face” during his first run, Hurst is running for re-election for the first time since his 2020 drunk driving incident. Republicans are expected to pounce on this issue with ads and mailers against Hurst, drumming up his negatives as much as possible.
We have the 12th as a Toss-Up; it’s likely a must-win for a Republican majority in the House of Delegates. But what would it take for the 12th district to flip?
First, it would take a significant drop in turnout in Montgomery County, home to both Blacksburg and Hurst’s base. The Montgomery County portion of the district makes up about 49% of the district vote in gubernatorial years; it would likely have to be ~43% these days if Ballard stands a fighting chance (Montgomery made up 45% of the vote in 2019). While Republicans were able to win the 12th in 2013 with Montgomery making up 49% of the vote, this portion of the district has trended too far to the left for Republicans to have a chance at winning the district with such a comfortable margin. Not only does the Montgomery portion of the district have to make up a smaller percentage of the total vote, but Ballard would likely need to get at least a third of the vote in Montgomery to have a shot at winning. In 2017, Yost got 31% of the vote, and in 2019, Hite got 25% of the vote.
Giles County, a rural Republican bastion directly north of Montgomery County, has the second-largest amount of votes. In 2017, it made up 25% of the vote, and in 2019, it made up 30% of the vote. This is Ballard’s home county, and he will likely give Hurst his worst performance here yet. In 2017, Hurst got 27% of the vote in Giles, and in 2019, he got 26%. In order for Ballard to win, Hurst would have to fall below 25% here, and Giles would likely have to make up at least a third of the vote in the district.
Radford City, a small college town, has the third-largest vote share in the district and will be the only “swing” locality of the district this year. In 2013, Yost won Radford, but Hurst has carried it twice in his runs for office. He will likely carry it again; despite it being Hite’s hometown, Hurst won the city by 7.57% in his 2019 re-election. In 2017, Radford City made up 17% of the district vote, and in 2019, it made up 16%. It’d likely have to make up 15% of the vote for Hurst to lose. Radford City isn’t in the bag for Hurst, but it’ll likely be a single-digit win for him. If Ballard wins Radford City somehow, he has almost certainly won District 12. Only a significant drop in Radford University turnout, more than what is personally expected, could produce this result.
The smallest portion of votes comes from two precincts in eastern Pulaski County. It made up just 8% of the district vote in 2017 and 2019. Ballard will win this area, but Hurst likely has to fall below 39% in this portion of the county for him to win; Hurst got 46% of the vote in 2017 and 40% of the vote in 2019. If Pulaski can make up 9% of the vote rather than the usual 8%, that’s a good sign for Ballard.