As hundreds of Republicans gathered in a high school gym for an exercise in raw democracy, several people came down from the bleachers to ask Del. Chris Peace a question: Why would someone from a strongly conservative district vote to expand Medicaid?

In case anyone forgot, Scott Wyatt, a Hanover County supervisor challenging Peace from the right, told the audience at King William High School on Thursday night that Peace had voted for “Obamacare,” a vote Wyatt said has made people wonder if Peace has spent too much time in Richmond around lobbyists and liberals.

“I promise I will never waver on your conservative values,” Wyatt said.

When it was Peace’s turn to address the crowd, which leaned strongly in his favor, he said Wyatt was using a single vote to distort his 13-year record in the House of Delegates, and the people of King William County are “too honest and too decent to fall for the deception.”

“I have faith that you will reject this type of negative politics that are corroding our society,” Peace said.

Medicaid expansion wasn’t front and center for the 2019 General Assembly session. But the issue is providing the fuel for what may be the most vicious nomination fight of this year’s legislative elections.

Peace, a 42-year-old lawyer, is trying to fend off Wyatt, 56, a retired telecommunications manager, in a largely rural, Trump-friendly district northeast of Richmond where tea party-style conservatives still seem to have plenty of fight. The contest has also led Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, to launch his own attacks on Peace’s conservative credentials, even after House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, appeared at Peace’s campaign kickoff event.

All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this year. Republicans are looking to maintain slim majorities in the House and the state Senate, while Democrats are looking to overcome the scandals ensnaring Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring to take full control of state government for the first time in decades.

The race in the 97th House District pits Peace, who talks about compassionate conservatism and the need to broaden the GOP’s appeal to women and minorities, against an upstart promising to be a “hard conservative.”

Peace and Wyatt will compete in a contested convention — the only one in the state — on May 4. But the campaigns have already been battling it out in a series of county-level mass meetings to select the 1,264 delegates who will get to vote at that convention, a process Peace supporters say the Wyatt faction is trying to rig.

Peace said he sees the convention as another example of a self-defeating Republican “purity test,” similar to when Richmond-area tea party groups took down former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and replaced him with Dave Brat. That seat is now in Democratic hands after Brat lost to Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, last year.

“Most people would say I’m a nice guy and I’m approachable. If I’m a nice-guy Republican, that’s OK with me,” said Peace, who worked as an aide to Cantor in the General Assembly.

Wyatt has painted Peace as an “establishment” Republican who’s grown too comfortable and developed a “sense of entitlement.”

“It’s not his seat,” Wyatt said. “It is the people’s seat.”

Peace was one of 19 House Republicans who voted with Democrats to expand health coverage to an estimated 400,000 low-income Virginians under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats had campaigned on expanding the program for years, but Republicans had united to block it, warning it could blow a hole in the state budget if federal dollars for the program were pulled back.

Angela Rook, a 43-year-old dental assistant, was one of the King William Republicans who approached Peace on Thursday for a conversation about his Medicaid vote.

She said she hadn’t decided whether she’ll support Peace or Wyatt, but she wasn’t fully convinced by Peace’s explanation that — after losing 15 GOP House seats in 2017 — some version of Medicaid expansion was going to pass anyway. So he and others decided it was better to pass it with conservative safeguards — such as a work requirement and a mechanism to roll back the expansion — rather than continue to block it and risk the state being stuck with a more fiscally irresponsible policy down the road.

“I guess it’s OK if you’re in politics,” Rook said. “But for somebody who has their mind made up to vote for you if you’re A or B. And you’re A. And you vote B. That makes me a little concerned.”

Peace said he believes he’ll have enough delegates to win regardless of his opponent’s tactics, but Wyatt called the race a “dead heat” that will come down to who can get more of their people to Hanover High School next month.

In early 2018, Wyatt was appointed to serve on the Republican committee that chose whether the nomination would be decided by a party-run convention or an open primary. Wyatt didn’t personally cast a vote for a convention. But his stand-in representative did, which led a party official to boot Wyatt from the committee for not disclosing he might run for the seat.

In a written statement, Dale Taylor, the chairwoman of the Hanover Republican Committee, said the situation created a “major conflict of interest” and “called into question the integrity of all involved.”

“As Republican leaders, we must be above reproach, fair, and fully transparent,” Taylor said.

Wyatt said he had asked to be taken off the committee but Taylor didn’t act on his request. He acknowledged he was considering challenging Peace when former Hanover GOP chairman Russ Wright appointed him to the committee.

“You look for support,” Wyatt said. “You’ve got to have support before you step out in traffic.”

Wyatt supporters took control of an April 11 mass meeting in Hanover County, which will send the most delegates to the convention as the most populous part of the district. The Peace campaign has accused those running that meeting of “slating” off Peace supporters — including his own in-laws and the family of fallen Hanover firefighter Lt. Brad Clark by putting them on a list of convention alternates who will be allowed to vote only if other delegates don’t show.

“It all came about in a very sleight-of-hand way,” said Peace, who it made it clear to party officials he preferred a primary.

Peace posted a video on social media that he said showed one of his supporters in a wheelchair being “forcibly” wheeled out of the room after challenging the proceedings. Wyatt said the man was removed for being disruptive.

“None of my folks have been that disruptive,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt disputed that his team had worked to keep Peace supporters off the delegate list, saying some of his strong supporters were listed as alternates at the meetings in King William and New Kent counties, where Peace had superior numbers.

The Republican Party of Virginia has an anti-slating rule. But because more people pre-filed to be delegates than there were slots, local party units had to cull the list at the mass meetings.

It was at the Hanover meeting that the anti-Peace flyer funded by Norment, a Medicaid expansion opponent, first appeared.

Norment’s flyer singled out Peace as the only Republican in the greater Richmond area who voted to “expand Obamacare.”

“Can you tell which of these area Republican legislators is ... NOT a conservative?” the headline read.

To defend his record as a conservative, Peace had circulated a chart showing that he had strong legislative ratings from the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, the anti-abortion Family Foundation and business groups. Combining the ratings, Peace’s graphic, which listed Norment and other GOP lawmakers by name, declared that he had the “most conservative voting record in the region.”

Peace said he wasn’t intending to compare himself to others; he was stating “the truth.”

“Everybody needs to play in their lane and work together for the best interest of the commonwealth,” Peace said when asked about Norment’s flyer. “I appreciate his interest in the race. I know maybe we sparked a nerve.”

“I concur that everyone should play in their lane,” said Norment spokesman Jeff Ryer. “Had Delegate Peace stayed in his, he wouldn’t have to face the reality of his record.”

In a statement, Cox called Peace “a great conservative and valuable member” of the House.

“I know personally how much he cares about his community, and that’s reflected in his record,” Cox said. “Every Republican in Virginia should be focused on protecting our majorities. Those with different priorities run the risk of helping to elect a far-left Democratic majority in November.”

Peace said he doesn’t regret his vote for Medicaid expansion, but he acknowledged some of his rhetoric on the issue may have upset some of his constituents. Before the expansion vote last year, Peace compared the lingering GOP opposition to Massive Resistance, the strategy deployed by white politicians to block school desegregation in Virginia.

Peace said he feels there’s an “older demographic” that relies on government services like Medicare or Social Security but is reluctant to give others access to similar programs.

“I think there’s this notion that they’re welfare queens, which was something of the past that we dealt with,” Peace said. “And I don’t think they liked it when I said that some of the opposition to ‘Obamacare’ had to do with race.”

Though there was no significant GOP push to undo the 2018 Medicaid expansion in the 2019 session, Wyatt said he would not support a budget that has Medicaid expansion in it.

Wyatt has also criticized Peace for posting a photo on social media last October of him meeting with members of the gun control group Moms Demand Action. Peace has said the women in the photo were constituents and the meeting took place in the context of Domestic Violence Awareness month, but Wyatt has used the image to suggest Peace is lukewarm on gun rights. In his speech at the King William meeting, Peace said Wyatt’s criticisms of the photo imply that he would meet only with constituents who agree with him. Wyatt said he would have met with the group without posting about it on social media.

Asked about Peace being endorsed by the National Rifle Association, Wyatt said “the NRA always endorses the incumbent.”

At the King William meeting, several Wyatt supporters said they formerly volunteered with Peace’s campaigns or worked with him on legislation. But his Medicaid vote went too far, they said.

“It’s about the vote. It’s not about the person,” said Hannah Kraynak, a Hanover retiree who gave her age as “over 65.”

Bobbie Bohr, a 61-year-old retiree from King William, said she was supporting Peace because he was a “good man” who supported her when her son was killed by a drunken driver in 2011. She said she has no issues with how he handled Medicaid expansion.

“I think what he did was right,” Bohr said. “He thought that it was the right thing to do for the majority of the people.”

Clarification:

An earlier version of this article included a claim that a man in a wheelchair threatened to put someone in a “body bag” before he was removed from the room. The man in question has denied the claim, saying he did not use the term in any context. A video of the incident reviewed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch was inconclusive, but does not clearly show the term being used.

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