Keeping Virginia Red
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in a crucial swing state, when all politics is local, this deeply right-wing state senator is holding down the fort for his party.
By Sanjena Sathian
It was a close Virginia congressional race, heartbreakingly close. A margin of 263 votes, in fact. At that point, it may have been one of the most heart-pounding moments of Eric Cantor’s political career.
We’re not talking about former House Majority Leader Cantor’s surprising primary upset last year — we’re talking 15 years ago, when Cantor barely edged his way into D.C. by beating out a homey evangelical named Steve Martin (not the comedian). Cantor has since seen plenty of limelight in his roller-coaster career, while Martin ended up staying at home, remaining in his state Senate seat and playing the big fish in a small pond. Except it turns out that brief flirtation with almost-victory has left Martin, the state senator representing Virginia’s 11th district, in a fairly crucial role — serving as a little-noticed staunch guard of the GOP’s fragile and increasingly precarious attempt to hold onto the purpling state.
Indeed, if Virginia stays red, he could well be the reason. And lest anyone forget, those 13 electoral votes proved critical in 2012, when Obama won the state by just 3.9 percent. Are you listening, Hillary?
Though everything down here in the district of less than 800,000 is plenty colloquial, just up the road in Richmond, Martin, the second-ranking senator in the Republican majority, holds sway. He’s part of a cohort of GOP legislators in the state who fall extremely far right, and enjoy poking the bear — even at a time when the party is dangerously fractious in a purpling state, says Randolph Macon professor of political science Richard Meagher, a Virginia politics expert. Those conservatives “are actually able to accomplish a lot,” Meagher says, citing, for example, their ability to block Governor Terry McAuliffe’s attempt to expand Medicaid. Martin wants still more, though. Like abolishing the corporate income tax. Entirely. He’s concerned about neighboring North Carolina’s lower tax rates attracting Virginia’s shipping jobs. And if he can’t get rid of it all at once, well, damn it, he wants a five- to 10-year timeline, max.
Being in the state Senate certainly doesn’t pay.
I meet Martin in the closest-to-urban part of his district, just south of Richmond in a town called Midlothian. His territory includes both dull suburbs and the farming heartland. We’re at a Denny’s-esque strip-mall diner called The Egg & I, where he’s just met his best friend for their weekly Monday-morning breakfast. He offers winks and waves to everyone from the hostess to other diners, but confides to me that it can be exhausting to know everyone. He’s got to be on the ball, though: The nearly three-decade-serving senator is facing two challengers for the first time ever in a Republican primary (primaries are themselves new in Virginia) this June. He is unruffled.
Martin gives the impression of a good country boy, certainly not the one-percenter fat cat you might imagine, trying to hack away corporate income tax. He wears a simple button-down and glasses, and doesn’t seem terribly email savvy. A high school-educated former farmboy, he went right to work instead of to college, because it made more financial sense. His father, a Korean War-era veteran, died when Martin was 17, after spending much of Martin’s early years “planting churches” while the family farmed “literally for our food,” Martin pronounces. He was born and raised in the district he now represents. Martin hasn’t gotten much wealthier since, finding himself comfortably middle-class. An insurance agent turned financial consultant these days, he’s also owned a dry cleaning business, which got him a bit of local heat thanks to some unpaid debt (he says there was a mistake; his name was left on a lease long after he’d sold the place, leaving him with someone else’s stuff).
And being in the state Senate certainly doesn’t pay much — it’s some $18,000 a year. So you’d better be willing to do it for another reason: in his case, ideology. An active member of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a national conservative organization headed up by religious-right icon Ralph Reed, Martin is deeply motivated by religion. He’s Baptist and sings gospel — has in fact toured nationally, while working in construction. The church was so important to him that he quit his job at DuPont to make more time for the church community. His eldest son has an engineering degree but still went off to seminary. And despite his limited paychecks, he says the family opted for private Christian school for the kids.
The flip side: Martin’s largest splash nationally was an unfortunate one. Last February, he posted on Facebook about abortion, writing of liberals’ attempts to “kill unhealthy children.” The otherwise calm Martin loses his cool when we talk about this. “Did you read the post?” he demands. The offending line — which he’s since changed; the original is here: “I’m not going to assume a right to kill [the fetus] just because the child’s host (some refer to them as mothers) doesn’t want it.” You can see his objection: He says the liberals twisted his sarcasm, as he was “parroting back their own argument to them,” showing his disgust at the notion that a woman might be a host for a fetus rather than a mother incubating a baby. This, too, is where he emotes in another way: “It’s really affected my life,” he says. On social media, he doesn’t talk about his grandchildren anymore, since he received threats with their names explicitly mentioned.
Oddly for him, though, most of the threats came from outside his state, some even from Europe. Quite far away from the rolling hills of the 11th District home front.