Despite outperforming Democratic President-elect Joe Biden in the district and drawing national attention as a “toss up” race by multiple pundits, Dr. Cameron Webb did not ultimately flip Virginia’s largest and reliably red district blue this year. As President Donald Trump continues to challenge election results weeks after the election, Webb called his Republican opponent on election night to concede and wish him well. “We didn’t raise the bar as much as we needed to.” Webb said in a phone call reflecting on his campaign. As Virginia’s New Jersey-sized 5th Congressional District has leaned Republican for the majority of the last 20 years, Webb worked to lock in and add votes within Democratic strongholds while seeking to flip other areas. He managed to earn more votes in Albemarle County — the district’s largest locality — than the last Democrat to run for the 5th. He also flipped Fluvanna and Nelson counties, but a sea of red counties in the southern portion of the district remained Republican-leaning. Webb attributes some of this to “Trump enthusiasm,” for which his opponent, Bob Good, aligned with.He noted the energy that went into building coalitions and “keeping people’s ears open” in more conservative areas of the district. “We improved on the margins in a lot of the Southside communities, but I think what offset it was the surge of Trump enthusiasm was so significant and, I think, all around the country, people just didn’t anticipate the extent to which some people were going to show up for President Trump,” Webb explained. “We certainly saw that here in the 5th in record turnout, not just for Democrats. It was record turnout for Republicans.”
Though Good benefitted from the coalitions that Trump’s presidency has garnered over the years, his campaign consultant, Chris Shores, notes Good’s outreach in the district, as well.“Unlike our opponent, the Good campaign has the ground game to vigorously contest every area of the 5th, including Albemarle,” Shores related to Charlottesville Tomorrow ahead of Good’s election night gathering. Good had spent much of Nov. 3 visiting polling places in Albemarle — an area that went to Webb but precinct-level results showed him taking areas like Crozet, Earlysville and Scottsville. Webb spent Election Day visiting polling places around the district.In the more than 400 days of his run for office, Webb balanced districtwide campaign events with his role as director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia. By March, he added shifts at UVA Health treating COVID-19 patients to his busy schedule.
“I’ve got more than enough verification on the ground that working with folks who see the world differently than you is our path forward as a country.”Dr. Cameron Webb, Congressional candidate
On his approach to politicking, Webb applied his experience as a doctor. “I think I use the same skill set I’ve used as a doctor. You walk in and meet people in a very human moment. You focus on the interpersonal interactions that matter and you meet people there,” Webb explained. “I think policy conversations can flow out of that, but you certainly meet people where they are.” Earlier in the pandemic, many campaign events switched from in-person to virtual — something Webb said he’s glad he did at the time for safety reasons, but notes the impact it had on the ability to connect with some of his potential voters. “We did a lot virtually, but I think that interpersonal interactions with folks who don’t necessarily identify ideologically the same way as you, those are the areas we could move the needle and those were a bit of a missed opportunity,” Webb said. “I think, in the pandemic, we did it the way that we should. It was safe and appropriate. I would have loved to be in front of people more. But in the circumstances we had, we ran that way.”Overall, he is pleased with his campaign, calling it “authentic” and grounded in the district. “We didn’t get mired in a broader national conversation all the time, we wanted to focus on what people experience here in the 5th District,” Webb said.“From my perspective, that’s a message we don’t hear enough,” he said. “I think the ideas that I was bringing or supporting are the reasons why I align as a Democrat, but I think that even within that, it’s important for me to focus on the people in this district and it’s not always going to be simply reinforcing what my party is saying. It’s going to be about advocating for this district.”
A national lens on local politics
The House of Representatives represents a particular challenge — particularly in the 5th District. Spanning from the North Carolina border to nearly Maryland and encompassing more densely populated specks of blue within swaths of more rural red, some of its representatives in recent years have been one-term representatives. Both Denver Riggleman — the outgoing Republican representative — and the one Democrat to secure the seat in two decades, Tom Perriello noted the challenge of making the entire district feel heard and represented. Webb hoped his locally-focused approach would help. The conversations Webb wanted to have on the campaign trail evolved as the year presented the nation with a global pandemic and demonstrations ranging from opposing lockdowns and mask-wearing to cries for racial justice and police reform. Congressional and Senate races in various states began to draw nationwide attention, to include Virginia’s 5th District. As Webb remained focused on his policy proposals and a local lens on national policies, Good evoked Trump’s name and support of the president’s policies. Webb labeled himself a “consensus builder” as Good leaned into his identity as a “bright red, Biblical conservative.” Webb cited his tenure as a White House Fellow in both the Barack Obama and Trump administrations — promising to listen to others. Good cited his experience in local government and wrestling — promising to fight for conservative values in Congress. Though Webb aimed to keep much of his campaign focused on local issues, both candidates have tapped into high profile national politics. In October, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, visited Charlottesville to stump for Webb ahead of a canvassing event. Emhoff emphasized Webb’s physical healing as a doctor and aligned it with how the Biden-Harris ticket aims to “heal the soul” of America.Earlier that month, Good hosted a rally in Madison County featuring House Republican Whip Steve Scalise. The congressman emphasized the importance of reelecting Trump and support of Republican candidates against “socialism.”Beyond healthcare and the economy, recent months have reignited national policy focus on policing and police reform. Attack ads surfaced alleging Webb’s support of defunding the police, overlaying his image with that of demonstrations around the country, calling him “way too radical.” The son of a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, Webb stopped short of backing the defund movement. He empathized with the reasons some activists call for defunding the police — even attending a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Charlottesville over the summer. Defunding the police is a broad term that gained more widespread attention throughout the summer amidst nationwide demonstrations following a recent spate of deaths of African Americans by law enforcement or vigilantes. For some, it means the abolishment of police and creation of something new, while for others it takes the form of divesting funds from police departments and allocating them to other resources. While Webb doesn’t back the defund movement in the sense of abolishing law enforcement or lessening its funding, he supports adequately funding law enforcement with resources for enhanced training and compensation that could retain quality officers. On criminal justice reform he supports building on the First Step Act that congress passed in 2018— which entails programs to reduce recidivism and reduces mandatory minimums in sentencing. Meanwhile on the campaign, Webb’s team countered Good’s ad with ads featuring Republicans pledging support for the Democratic candidate, to include sherifs around the district and within Good’s home turf, Campbell County. Following the election, the Washington Post reported the critiques of newly re-elected Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, of how terms like “defunding the police” were used against Democrats this year. “We [need to] look at the things that they say about us,” Spanberger said in audio the Post obtained from a call with House Democrats. “Because whether we think it’s just an attack ad and that’s what it does . . . it doesn’t matter because it works.”Spanberger’s race, like Webb’s, was one expected to be close either way by reports and pundits. Two years ago, Spanberger flipped the 7th District from red to blue and went on to collaborate with Riggleman. She secured reelection this year by less than 2 points. “There were different experiences in every congressional race, but I think that particular attack in specific was used all over in different ways,” Webb said. “I think the bigger issue in Virginia’s 5th District was the bitter partisanship, the way that folks did line up on party lines. I think a presidential [election] year can have that effect.”However, one of the biggest things Webb said he learned in his campaign is that there is room for bipartisanship, despite how divided politics have been in the nation. “Bipartisanship is alive and well. I had enough conversations with conservatives who say, ‘You are in the right direction,’” Webb explained. “It reminds me of the idea of being a consensus builder and I think there’s a space for that. Even though we weren’t successful in this particular race and this particular cycle, I’ve got more than enough verification on the ground that working with folks who see the world differently than you is our path forward as a country.”With the election recently behind him, Webb is enjoying more time with his wife — who is assistant professor of emergency medicine at UVa — and their two children. “I’m always focused on service,” Webb said adding that he will examine “whatever opportunities come up where I can have the most impact in communities where I live.”With new census data collected and new district maps set to be drawn for state and congressional races, it’s possible the district he ran in this time could take a different shape should he run again. While not ruling out some type of future run, he says he will strike a balance with his family. “I have an amazing wife with a career of her own and we took the last year and a half to focus on this opportunity for me,” Webb said. “We always balance each other in professional opportunities as we think about our next moves.”