Editorial – Area set to flex political muscle

Published 7:43 pm Monday, December 12, 2022

We’ve long bemoaned Western Tidewater’s declining influence in Richmond.

Mills Godwin’s two tenures as governor in the 1960s and 1970s ushered in a four-decade run of prominence in state government for our rural region. Legislative giants like Richard Holland, Paul Councill, Bill Barlow, Fred Quayle and, most recently, Chris Jones made sure Western Tidewater never went lacking as state funds were doled.

After a dry spell, legislative redistricting might just help us flex our muscle again. The battle for control of the state Senate in the 2023 elections could be won or lost in Isle of Wight, Suffolk, Franklin and Southampton, and the winner will be poised to hold an outsized share of power over the coming four years.

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According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the newly created 17th Senate District was the most evenly divided of all Senate districts in last month’s midterm elections, with 50% voting Democratic and 50% voting Republican. Two experts hired by the state Supreme Court to draw new legislative maps after a bipartisan commission failed to do so listed the seat as leaning Democratic based on votes cast in the 2017 Virginia attorney general election. By the 2021 governor’s race, the 17th was leaning red, but the 2022 midterms suggest it’s dead even.

State Del. Clinton Jenkins of Suffolk isn’t expected to draw major opposition for the Senate district’s Democratic nomination, so he’ll sit back, conserve his funds and maybe munch on some popcorn while watching a doozy of a Republican primary.

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, whom many assumed would be the GOP’s choice to take on Jenkins, will have to beat retired NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler of Emporia on June 20. Sadler, who had been rumored for a year or so to have interest in the race, announced his candidacy Nov. 9, positioning himself as a “conservative outsider” in the race.

Sadler is deep-pocketed and could force Brewer to spend a ton of money she’d otherwise have spent running against Jenkins. It will be interesting to see whether the Republican establishment picks sides (and invests money) in the primary or chooses to sit on the sidelines. A few local leaders, including Isle of Wight Supervisor William McCarty, have endorsed Brewer, as has former Gov. Bob McDonnell. But Republican bigwigs have been mostly silent since Sadler’s announcement.

The 17th District includes all of Isle of Wight, Southampton, Greensville and Brunswick counties, the cities of Suffolk, Franklin and Emporia, and parts of Portsmouth and Dinwiddie County. The district’s population is heavily weighted to the east, a fact that seemingly favors Brewer, a popular state delegate, in the primary. But Sadler’s name recognition from his NASCAR days could help him make inroads east of the I-95 corridor.

With control of the narrowly divided state Senate hanging in the balance, all eyes will be on Western Tidewater in 2023.