The Democratic primary in Virginia’s 55th House District surrounding Charlottesville has gone from a relatively quiet contest to a level of mudslinging that has captured the attention of local leaders, Richmond politicos and national lobbying groups.
The campaigns of both Amy Laufer and Kellen Squire have been called messy, risky and misleading.
And while the state Democratic Party has said it remains “entirely agnostic to any of the elections and [does] not take sides in primaries officially,” one party insider who asked to remain anonymous was more blunt.
The race, they said, has become a “s–tshow.”
That show began when The Daily Progress was contacted in mid-May by Emily’s List, a fundraising juggernaut dedicated to electing women who back abortion rights. The group said it was concerned about posts Squire made on the liberal-leaning Daily Kos blog in 2017 in which he calls himself “unashamedly pro-life.”
When confronted with his previous comments, Squire provided a number of explanations.
At the time the posts were made, Squire was running for delegate against the heavily favored, and ultimately victorious, Republican Del. Rob Bell.
Squire told The Daily Progress that the posts were both a failed attempt at catering to voters in a much-redder 58th District — suggesting the posts were genuine outreach to more conservative voters — and also some form of “Democratic counter operations” in order to bait Republicans into attacking him — suggesting the posts were not sincere at all.
Squire’s “pro-life” comments were not confined to the Daily Kos comment section.
When a Twitter user that same year asked Squire what made his different from “major Dem planks,” Squire replied, “A bunch, but probably notably I’m unashamedly pro-life and pro-Second Amendment. It used to be about Russia/foreign affairs.”
Laufer, a former Charlottesville School Board member, and her campaign have not bought Squire’s explanations.
In a batch of mailers sent out over the Memorial Day weekend, Laufer’s campaign argued, “Kellen Squire’s own words show you can’t trust him to protect reproductive rights.”
Laufer, meanwhile, has always been pro-abortion, the mailers say. “Always have been. Always will be.”
In the days after the mailers went out, Laufer has been attacked online for mischaracterizing Squire’s comments, misunderstanding Squire’s explanations and misleading voters.
J. Miles Coleman, media relations coordinator at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told The Daily Progress that despite Squire’s past comments, it’s Laufer, not Squire, who is now on the defense — and that’s not good for her campaign.
“It’s not a good look to be going into the final stretch of that campaign, which we basically are, being defensive or being perceived as being on the defensive, which I think the Laufer campaign basically is at this point,” Coleman said. “I’d say it looks a little desperate.”
There has been an outpouring of support for Squire on Twitter in the wake of Laufer’s Memorial Day mailers. Many online have agreed with Coleman’s assessment.
One Squire supporter familiar to local voters is Sena Magill, the former Democratic Charlottesville City Council member who abruptly resigned from office earlier this year citing family needs.
“I am disturbed by the tactics chosen by Amy Laufer and the recent mailer that intentionally took a comment out of context to make Kellen Squire appear to be against abortion,” Magill said in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday.
Magill said she took offense to a Laufer statement that said Squire had been “whipping his followers into a frenzy on Twitter.”
“I support Kellen Squire, and I am not in a frenzy,” Magill said.
But not everyone agrees, including the woman who replaced Magill on Charlottesville City Council.
“His explanation about his past stances defies believability,” said City Council Member Leah Puryear, another Democrat who like Laufer previously served on the city’s school board and was appointed to Magill’s seat earlier this year. “He was either lying then or he’s lying now. Either way, voters need to be able to trust their representatives to be honest with them.”
Rick Randolph, a former Democratic Albemarle County supervisor, echoed Puryear’s remarks.
“I’m supporting Amy today because [Squire’s] explanations don’t make any sense,” said Randolph. “I don’t trust him to defend our most fundamental rights.”
Squire has acknowledged that his past comments have added to the confusion in the race but maintains that he can be trusted by voters.
“When it became clear that, although most people understood my intent and strategy, my framing was detrimental, I fixed it and unapologetically admitted the criticism of poor framing I’d received was justified,” Squire said.
In spite of his “poor framing,” he said he has never been against abortions as a medical professional who provides such services.
Coleman at the Center for Politics said the race could ultimately come down to this one matter for many voters.
And his assessment is that Squire is the candidate who will likely gain the most from it all.
“There’s not a lot of difference between these candidates on the actual issue,” Coleman said. “If you’re a voter who’s maybe on the fence, this is something that could maybe push you in Squire’s direction.”
The Democratic primary is June 20.