LYNCHBURG — A crowded field of seven candidates seeking to replace outgoing Congressman Bob Goodlatte made their cases at a 6th District GOP forum Saturday at Liberty University .
Of the eight Republicans vying for Goodlatte’s seat, Douglas Wright, a Harrisonburg dentist, was the only one absent.
For two hours, candidates fielded questions from moderators before closing with short speeches.
The questions were often wide-ranging, dealing with topics such as foreign policy and aid, military spending, the national debt, civil asset forfeiture and a variety of hot-button issues.
In opening statements, the candidates tried to define themselves and their political priorities, while also answering a question about military spending priorities and how it affects the national debt.
Elliot Pope, who owns a Lynchburg construction company and is earning a master’s degree in public policy at LU, focused on the country’s future and the Republican Party in his opening.
“My generation is going to be paying down years and years and years of debt,” Pope said, expressing the need to attract a new generation of conservatives to push back against overspending.
Ben Cline of Rockbridge County, an eight-term member of the Virginia House of Delegates, emphasized his legislative experience in Richmond, where he said he has taken the values of central Virginia to the capital to fight for responsible government and a balanced budget.
Kathryn Lewis, a small business owner in Bedford County and a Lynchburg College graduate, is the youngest candidate at 27, and described herself as “not the traditional politician,” but one who has the skills to address issues for all generations .
Mike Desjadon of Augusta County, a health care advisor, said he is running because “career politicians have corrupted the legislature” and voters need to elect “real people.”
He stressed a need to address behavioral health, citing the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and to develop a plan to stop such fatalities without allowing Democrats to enact gun control.
“We don’t have a plan, if we’re being honest with ourselves, and the Democrats do,” he said. “Their plan is to come for our guns.”
Ed Justo, a lawyer in Harrisonburg, focused on the budget in his short opening statement, a theme he and other candidates often cited during the event.
Cynthia Dunbar, a Republican National Committee member, former member of the Texas Board of Education and a former professor at the LU School of Law, described herself as a “strict constructionist” when it comes to the Constitution.
She said she believes in “servant leadership,” and touted endorsements she received in January from two Texans, Sen. Ted Cruz and former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
Chaz Haywood, Rockingham County’s circuit court clerk, emphasized he is a religious believer, a father and a veteran , touting his nine years in the National Guard and his professional resume.
An audience of more than 100 packed a Liberty University classroom for the forum. Stickers throughout the crowd showed support for a variety of candidates, yet Dunbar was the clear favorite, drawing the loudest audience applause for her statements .
Haywood, next in line to answer questions after her response, jokingly thanked the crowd for applauding every time he stood up to speak.
Though Dunbar won Saturday’s crowd, she’s trailing Cline financially .
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Cline has raised $108,151 to Dunbar’s $58,060 since both candidates announced in November.
Haywood has $6,127 in campaign donations, according to the same source.
Numbers for other candidates are not available, because they did not join the race until January, and were not required to file a financial campaign report for 2017.
For 6th District voters, this was their third chance to see the GOP candidates in a forum setting. A live stream of Saturday’s forum is available on the 6th District Republican Committee’s Facebook page.
A fourth forum will be announced soon, according to Steven Troxel, who serves on the executive committee for the 6th District GOP. Troxel said the date hasn’t been decided on for the final forum, though it will likely take place in Roanoke or Botetourt County to give candidates a chance to reach voters spread throughout the district.
Previous forums were in the counties of Augusta and Warren. The 6th District stretches across 12 counties in central and western Virginia.
Saturday’s forum was hosted by the LU College Republicans and sponsored by Middle Resolution , a Mechanicsville-based political action committee that works to elect conservative candidates.
The Republican 6th District candidate will be decided at a May 19 convention at James Madison University. Delegates will choose a GOP nominee by a single ballot plurality vote.
In addition to GOP candidates running to replace Goodlatte, three Democrats have joined the race.
They are the following: Sergio Coppola of Harrisonburg, and Peter Volosin and Charlotte Moore, both of Roanoke.
Independents Michael Frend, an Augusta County bus driver, and Steve America, a former professional wrestler from Mt. Crawford, also are running for the 6th District seat.