Republican Congressman Rob Wittman has enjoyed some relatively low-stress campaigns over the decade that he has represented Virginia’s 1st District, but he faces a spirited challenge from Democrat Vangie Williams in Tuesday’s election.

Wittman, who is from Westmoreland County, has easily fended off challengers since he was first elected to Congress in 2008, collecting near or above 60 percent of the vote in three of the four previous re-election bids. But Williams, a strategic planner who lives in King George County, is hoping to unseat the incumbent with a grassroots campaign casting Wittman as a corporate pawn who is unresponsive to constituents.

The 1st District covers Fredericksburg, Stafford County, Caroline County, Hanover County, the Middle Peninsula, the Northern Neck and parts of Spotsylvania and Prince William counties.

The candidates have not emphasized their support or lack thereof for Republican President Donald Trump, who has been telling voters that the midterm elections are all about him. Williams called impeachment of the president “necessary” at a Democratic primary debate in May, but recently said she would need to see the results of the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia before making a decision.

Policy-wise, one of the main differences between the candidates is their stance on health care. Wittman opposes government-run universal health insurance and voted earlier this year to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act. Williams, who says health care is a human right, supports a “Medicare-for-all” system that includes dental and vision coverage. She indicated at a recent campaign stop that a small increase to the 7.65 percent Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax would pay for the proposal. “Raising that up a little bit, we can afford Medicare,” she said.

Wittman disagrees, saying her proposal would require trillions of dollars worth of tax increases rather than a nominal tax hike. He cited a study from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center stating that Medicare for all would increase federal budget commitments by about $32.6 trillion over 10 years.

Proponents of Medicare for all say the system would lead to lower premiums and out-of-pocket costs, offsetting tax increases.

Williams has tread carefully on gun control, saying she supports the Second Amendment but is in favor of reforms such as universal background checks. During the Democratic primary, she came up with a slogan—“If it takes you 30 bullets to kill a deer, you need to go fishing”—though Williams did not offer a firm position on proposed restrictions to the size of magazines.

“We have to have viable reform and if that’s what it’s going to take, maybe that’s what it going to take,” she said recently when asked about proposed limitations on gun magazines. She said at the Democratic primary forum that the National Rifle Association should be disbanded, but has since softened that position.

“What I want the NRA to do is go back to what they were before—an educational entity to educate … the public on weapons and how to use them,” Williams, who received an F rating from the NRA, told The Free Lance–Star editorial board. “Right now, the NRA has a little bit too much say in our political entities.”

Wittman, who received an A rating from the NRA, opposes gun control measures and voted in favor of a controversial bill—which Williams opposes—that would make it easier to buy silencers. Supporters of that bill said hunters and target shooters use silencers to protect their hearing.

In an interview, the congressman noted his support for the Fix NICS Act, signed into law this year, that adds incentives and penalties to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. That legislation, he said, will help keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals and those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital or declared mentally incompetent.

On immigration, Williams has expressed support for a path to citizenship for nearly 800,000 people brought to the country illegally as children. And she called Trump’s recent proposal to sign an executive order ending birthright citizenship an unconstitutional “political stunt.”

“The 14th Amendment is clear in conferring citizenship on people born in the United States,” she said in a statement. “This is a fringe argument and another way to stoke fears to motivate a political base a week before the election.”

Wittman agreed that ending the program would require a constitutional amendment, but said Congress should take up the debate over birthright citizenship. “I do think that concept should be debated in today’s context,” said Wittman, who says he is undecided.

Wittman lauded the Trump administration’s decision last year to end the Obama-era Deferred Action of Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, which the congressman called a “clear example of executive overreach.” He voted for an unsuccessful immigration bill in June that would have let DACA recipients renew their legal status every three years while funding Trump’s proposed border wall and curbing legal immigration.

Both candidates are against abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On abortion, Wittman thinks it should be illegal, while Williams supports a women’s right to choose.

Most political experts have labeled the 1st District safely Republican, but some Democrats think Williams can become part of a blue-wave election.

Williams often mentions her personal financial struggles when talking about the need for change. She said she lost her home and filed for bankruptcy years ago because of a sick daughter’s medical bills and that Wittman was unresponsive to her requests to him for help.

“I said, ‘Help me,’ and I got a form letter back,” she said recently. “The second thing I did is I went into his office, and I was told he was too busy. And from that, I ended up having to file bankruptcy.”

The Free Lance–Star requested a copy of the form letter, but a spokeswoman for Williams said the candidate was unable to find it.

Wittman said his office does have correspondence from Williams, but that it is unrelated to her sick daughter. Williams did say in a September interview with People’s World that she sent a written request to Wittman for help in solving an “environmental issue” at her home and received a “generic form letter … that had nothing to do with what I wrote.”

A spokeswoman for Wittman said that statement “refutes her later claim that she reached out to us about her daughter being sick and didn’t get a response.”

“Every constituent’s request is treated with urgency and respect,” Wittman press secretary Kathleen Gayle wrote in an email. “Congressman Wittman meets with dozens of constituents a week and tries his absolute hardest to meet even with constituents who drop in without an appointment, as was the case with Mrs. Williams.”

But Williams said in an emailed statement that the “health of my daughter and identifying an environmental issue in my home are related to the same visit.” A hospital recommended the environmental study in light of her daughter’s health issue, and the family needed a government agency to conduct the review, Williams said.

That’s why she says she reached out to Wittman. “If Rep. Wittman’s staff spent more time helping constituents, like me, rather than trying to find weaknesses in my story, I wouldn’t be running against him,” Williams stated.

Williams slightly out-raised Wittman over the past three months, though the incumbent has a lot more money in the bank.

The challenger raised $256,020 from July through September, with the vast majority of those donations coming from individuals, according to the Federal Election Commission. Wittman took in $238,152 over the same time period, with a little more than half coming from political action committees and the rest from individuals.

But Wittman had a total of $960,527 at the end of September compared with Williams’ balance of $89,258. Williams has criticized Wittman for taking money from health care companies and other corporate political action committees.

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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