Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett says he didn’t know who Jason Kessler was when the white nationalist leader met with him in his Capitol Hill office in March.
Democrats aren’t buying it.
Kessler organized the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday that led to the death of one person and many more being injured. Charlottesville is in Garrett’s 5th District.
Some liberals are hopeful that Garrett, a freshman in a lower-tier race next year, now has a tougher re-election on his hands.
“It’s an opportunity to put a race in play that wasn’t last week,” said Jon Soltz, chairman and co-founder of VoteVets, the Democratic PAC that recruits and supports veterans running for Congress.
VoteVets is raising awareness about Garrett's meeting with Kessler — which the congressman has since dismissed as an “occupational hazard” — and about his Democratic challenger, a Marine veteran.
VoteVets sent out a fundraising email to its supporters on Tuesday about Democrat Roger Dean Huffstetler, whom it wasn’t planning to officially endorse until later this summer. Within the first six hours, the group had raised $10,000 from 365 donors. (Contributions were split between the Huffstetler campaign and VoteVets.)
Striking a blow?
“Do you want to strike a blow against white supremacy? Let’s defeat one of the leaders who has coddled the modern day leaders of that movement,” the email reads.
Virginia’s 5th District is rated solidly Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. National Republican made a late investment in the district last year, with Congressional Leadership Fund pouring in nearly $1 million to shore up the open seat. But President Donald Trump and Garrett easily won the district by 11 and 17 points, respectively.
The last time a Democrat won the seat (former Rep. Tom Perriello in 2008), the district voted for the GOP presidential candidate by just 3 points.
But Democrats already included Garrett, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, on their target list earlier this year. Since violence broke out in Charlottesville on Saturday, Democrats pounced on Garrett’s connection to Kessler.
“It is up to every American to stand up to this bigotry and hate, but particularly Congressman Tom Garrett, who represents this district and appears to have helped legitimize these groups by meeting with the event’s organizer Jason Kessler,” said Cole Leiter, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a midday Saturday statement. The DCCC called on Garrett to take a “strong and immediate stand against these protests” and said he wasn’t fit to serve in Congress if he didn’t. The DCCC's communication director tweeted about Garrett: “Let’s keep our eye on the prize, Dems: beating House Republicans.”Since the rally, Garrett has been outspoken against this weekend’s violence and Kessler. In an interview Sunday with Fox News’ America’s News Headquarters, Garrett's message for Kessler was, “Go away.”
When asked if his meeting with Kessler “mainstreams” his views, the congressman agreed.
“Oh I do think it does. ... but what I’m telling you is I didn’t know who that cat was at that point in time,” Garrett said. “I know who he is now, and I don’t like him any more than anyone else does.”
Garrett added that he’s been condemning Kessler’s actions and views since May and that he regrets the meeting.
Garrett said he regularly takes meetings with constituents, but it’s not clear how his office missed who Kessler was. Neither his campaign nor his office responded to questions about the meeting.
For Democrats, defeating Garrett also means building up his challenger. Soltz suggested this is an opportunity for Huffstetler to raise money and his profile, similar to how some Democratic challengers this cycle have been able to raise money from campaign videos that have gone viral.
“This is a huge opportunity for RD and his team to demonstrate the fact they have unique, fresh leader who is a young Marine who served people of all colors and religions.That’s the contrast in this district,” Soltz said.
Huffstetler spoke with MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Sunday, but he didn’t mention the congressman. In the days since the rally, he’s attended community discussions about the violence.
“The community here is still reeling from the events from this weekend and are working toward rebuilding and healing,” campaign spokesman Kevin Zeithaml said Tuesday.
“At some point before we are able to move past this, the Congressman must be held accountable for meeting with the white supremacist who brought this hatred to our city,” he added.
Talk of campaign politics around any incident of violence can be touchy. The Virginia Republican Party accused the DCCC of trying to score political points with their attacks on Tuesday.
But Soltz says it’s Garrett, not VoteVets or the Democrats, who have made this a political issue.
“Garrett politicized it when he met with a white nationalist Nazi,” Soltz said. “We didn’t start that, Congressman Garrett did.“I don’t care if he apologized. It’s not going away,” Soltz said. “You can’t apologize for meeting with Nazis.”