By Ryan Alessi
Now that the primary vote totals are in, the healing can begin — at least if things turn out the way 26th House District Democratic nominee Brent Finnegan and other local Democratic activists hope.
While Finnegan and his Democratic primary opponent Cathy Copeland stuck largely to issues and avoided personal jabs in public during the primary, the grinding nature of the race — like any campaign — left both camps with some raw feelings. Now, local Democratic leaders are trying to figure out how to harness the energy displayed in the primary into the party’s efforts to win a seat that Republicans have held for decades.
“I like to live in a world of hope, and I really am looking forward to having folks move forward and vote for a Democrat in the fall,” said Alleyn Harned, chairman of the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee.
Finnegan defeated Copeland in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the 26th District, which covers Harrisonburg and much of northern Rockingham County. He received about two-thirds of the 1,915 votes cast, according to the unofficial results.
At the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee meeting Monday — the day before the primary — committee members discussed organzing a unity rally where Finnegan, Copeland, 26th District Senate candidate April Moore and other party activists would publicly declare joint support for Finnegan and Moore in November, Harned said.
“This is our chance to kumbaya and bring folks back together,” he said.
Copeland, however, told The Citizen she wouldn’t be available on the date party leaders had tentatively picked for the rally, July 20.
Harned said the committee is only in the initial stages of putting an event together and will try to find a date and time that would work better.
“Obviously we’d want to pick a day that would get the most people — certainly both Cathy Copeland and Brent Finnegan,” Harned said. “The party was interested in supporting the internal feeling of unity and how fired up people are.”
Finnegan said he “absolutely” would like to see such a unity rally, which is a common way for local and state political parties to publicly move past difficult primary campaigns.
Copeland did not immediately respond to follow-ups about whether she would participate in a unity rally.
As of Thursday night, Copeland and Finnegan still hadn’t spoken to each other since before the primary election.
Copeland said she tried to call Finnegan to congratulate him on Election Night using a phone number she got from the House Democratic Caucus.
Finnegan said he didn’t receive a message from Copeland. He said he missed a few calls from numbers he didn’t recognize during the hectic activities Tuesday night but said “there was no voicemail from her.”
“We’re giving it some time,” he said. “She has not said she’s supporting my campaign.”
In an interview Tuesday night, Copeland had told The Citizen that she wants to see a Democrat represent the 26th District, but she stopped short of saying she is fully behind Finnegan.
Finnegan said he hopes to earn her support and gain her supporters’ trust.
“I want to build a broad coalition of people who want to see policies that help a large number of people in the Shenandoah Valley,” he said. “I would welcome folks from her campaign — and not only welcome them, but we will be reaching out for one-on-one meetings.”
Finnegan would need a fully united local Democratic apparatus in his bid to unseat Del. Tony Wilt, the Broadway Republican who is running for a fifth two-year term (he served an additional half term after first winning the seat in a 2010 special election).
Wilt defeated Finnegan in the 2017 general election, 54.5 percent to 45.3 percent. It was the first time Wilt faced Democratic opposition since the 2010 special election.
Harned, though, said he didn’t believe the Democratic primary was detrimental to the party’s efforts to win the 26thDistrict seat.
“I would say these campaigns really benefitted from the process,” he said. “There’s a lot of great dialogue that was facilitated.”
He said both candidates raised their public profiles, made connections with voters and practiced executing their ground game of door-to-door campaigning — all necessary steps for a strong general election campaign.
“It’s always a challenge, but it’s really important we work together,” he said, adding that he hopes Democrats remember the 2016 presidential race. “Democrats have some recent past experience where not working together didn’t work out for us.”
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