By Bridget Manley, publisher
Two candidates vying for the newly re-districted Virginia 2nd Senate seat have joined together to send newspaper subscribers a “paper debate” in response to their other opponent, Sen. Mark Obenshain, not attending forums and debates in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 election.
Obenshain, a Republican, has declined to participate in scheduled forums held in the district this fall, including forums held in Staunton and Waynesboro in September. Obenshain also skipped a candidates forum held Monday night in Harrisonburg.
Kathy Beery, the Democratic candidate and Joshua Huffman, the libertarian candidate, went in together on paying for an insert in newspapers in the district that lays out all three candidates positions on a number of issues. Using Obenshain’s 20 years of voting records, sponsored bills and public statements, the candidates compare Obenshain’s positions to their own to give voters a balanced look at the field.
Obenshain, meanwhile, told The Citizen that scheduling conflicts, including travel for work, have kept him away from forums this campaign season. He also cited an inability for forum organizers to move forums to dates when he could attend as a conflict.
“Very often there are more requests or there are organizations that are willing to work with the campaigns to find a date that is acceptable, and it just hasn’t happened this year,” Obenshain said. “But I’m out there talking to groups virtually every day.”
His opponents, however, don’t see it that way.
“People need to know he’s not participating in the democratic process,” Beery said.
Huffman said both he and Obenshain received requests from local news outlets asking if they would be willing to debate this campaign season, and Huffman said Obenshain said he would – provided the debates fit into his schedule.
“I think it’s fairly obvious he’s making his schedule so that it doesn’t fit,” Huffman said.
Obenshain, who has represented Harrisonburg in the Senate since 2004, found himself drawn into the new 2ndDistrict as part of the redistricting process that happens each decade after the U.S. Census. The new district now covers Bath and Highland Counties and the western part of Augusta County, as well as Harrisonburg, Rockingham and Page Counties.
Beery and Huffman say participating in forums and debates is how candidates can inform voters about their positions and what they would do as their government representative.
“People need to know where we all stand, so they can make a really good decision,” Beery said.
The paper debate and the three candidates
Jayne Docherty, Beery’s campaign manager, researched and compiled Obenshain’s positions on various issues, including public education, infrastructure and privacy and personal liberties. In addition to the newspaper insert, the two campaigns have published Obenshain’s various positions on a website.
Obenshain said he believes that through the “paper debate,” Huffman and Beery are just “doing what candidates do” — promoting their agendas and tearing down other candidates.
But Huffman says it’s more than that.
He said while his platform and Beery’s are very different, they both agree that voters deserve to make an informed decision about who is running to represent them.
“I guess he assumes that his name ID can substitute for any sort of real policy discussion,” Huffman said. “People will say, ‘well, I know Mark Obenshain, that’s good enough.’”
Obenshain declined to address the criticism that he was running on name recognition and would not debate fellow candidates.
“Well, you know, I’m not going to respond to that,” Obenshain said in response. “What I will tell you is that I am very proud of the record that I have accumulated over 20 years in the legislature. I have worked on a broad range of issues and have delivered tangible results for the Shenandoah Valley.”
Docherty said she believes it could be a trickle-down strategy.
“I really think a lot of Republicans are taking their cues from [Donald] Trump,” Docherty said. “[They think] ‘we own the seat, we won’t need to show up.’”
Obenshain said that while didn’t attend the forums, he has been campaigning in the district, attending events in communities throughout the district over the course of the campaign. He also said he has not seen the website that outlines his voting record set up by the two campaigns.
“In every campaign in every year, there are people who try to put their own spin,” Obenshain said. “I am sure that if there is a website up, that it has put the most liberal and left-leaning spin on what is a conservative record of accomplishments over 20 years.”
Docherty, meanwhile, said that she spent hours researching Obenshain’s record to fairly represent his positions. Docherty also said the campaign was careful to use Obenshain’s votes and sponsored bills in the legislature when speaking as Obenshain in a first person voice, including links to those votes and bills.
The issues important to each candidate
The “paper debate” outlines issues that are important to Beery and to Huffman, and each candidate’s views are very different from the other’s.
For Beery, workers’ rights and public education are issues that are important to her platform. Huffman, meanwhile, is focusing much of his campaign on privacy and personal liberties.
Obenshain told The Citizen that he remains focused on the infrastructure and safety upgrades of Interstate 81, limited government, public safety, and parental rights in education.
Early voting in Virginia runs through Saturday, and Election Day is Tuesday.
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