Gloves Come Off in the 22nd
Of those in attendance I would say about 10 had Bell stickers, 15-20 had Smith and the rest were wearing none.
Each candidate gave their opening statements and then they took questions from the audience.
Smith used his statement to go on the attack; pointing out taxes, business rights, and out of control spending that he would be a better at than the current Senator. This comes in stark contrast to his speech several months ago to the Montgomery GOP where he simply talked about open government. He also pointed to his long term committment to the party by citing all his leadership roles and volunteer work he has done for the party over the years.
Bell's statements were typical of the incumbents where he says he hopes to set the record straight on some misconceptions and misinterpretations of his record. He also pointed to illegal immigration as a major issue that we need try and address here at the state level since the feds wont do anything about it.
In the Q&A section, there were a couple of interesting moments. One came when a lady asked about Smith's proposal for a website that shows government contractors and the business they did for the state. Everyone seemed to agree it was a great idea; including Senator Bell who pointed out that it already exists (the website is datapoint.apa.virginia.gov) and cited work Smith's company had done for the state as evidence of what you can find there.
Another interesting thing was there is a guy who has been passing out a several page handout on "RINO hunting" and basically showcasing something Bell did that was non-conservative. He has been doing this for about a year now, and this month it was a Roanoke Times article on the transportation solution. Anyway, during the Q&A session, a Bell supporter stood up and chided the gentleman who distributed these as hurting the party and actually being offended by them. That gentleman then replied: Brandon Bell offends me!
All in all it was a good event and I think everyone enjoyed the unique setup.
I saw two major things from this event.
The first was that Smith has seemingly changed his strategy. As I told you 2 months ago, he had to go on the attack and talk about taxes and the smoking ban to ever have a shot at Bell. He did just that at this event, but there is a catch. I imagine everyone in that room has already made up their mind about who they will be supporting; so the key now is for him to get his message out to the broader public.
The second is that Bell probably in a better position than many of the other primaried Senators in that his own district GOP people are either behind him or are staying neutral. This is in stark contrast to say the Hanger race where Rockingham Chair Mike Meredith and nearly every committee member in the locales is behind Sayre. Bell actually has some support from the committees, and he doesn't have any of the leadership working against him.
I don't think a tremendous amount has changed in this race yet; but we will know much more after the financial reports are made public in the next day or so. If Smith has a ton of money (either raised or self-financed) he could make this race interesting.