Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, has foiled Culpeper County resident Tina Freitas’s GOP primary challenge, edging closer to winning re-election to the Virginia Senate.
Hanger, 70, of Augusta, on Tuesday defeated Freitas, the wife of Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, to earn the Republican nomination. The hard-fought 24th Senate District contest revealed fissures within the state Republican Party that were also evident in other races.
Hanger received 57.3 percent of the vote; Freitas won 47.6 percent. Hanger garnered 11,122 votes to Freitas’ 8,268. She won Culpeper, her home turn.
“It was very gratifying the show of support today,” said Hanger, speaking Tuesday night from a victory celebration at The Depot Grille in Staunton. “Obviously, it was a very tough campaign. … A very good feeling coming out as the victor.”
Hanger, co-chair of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, is one of the most powerful members of the Virginia General Assembly.
A Culpeper County resident, Tinas Freitas is the wife of Republican state Del. Nick Freitas. She has volunteered on many campaigns, written commentary for news outlets, served as vice president of the Culpeper Republican Committee, and president of the county’s GOP women’s group. This was her first run for a state elective office.
Hanger outspent her 5-to-1, with more than $500,000 in “big-lobby money,” Freitas told more than 50 supporters who gathered Tuesday evening at Prince Michel Winery near Leon in Madison County. The vineyard was where she had announced her candidacy Feb. 9.
Freitas, 40, said she didn’t want to run, but did so when no one else in the party would hold Hanger accountable for his recent votes on Medicaid, abortion and gun rights.
“It was a corrective action of a voting record that did not match up with his claim of being 100 percent pro-life and a defender of Second Amendment rights and a fiscal conservative,” Freitas said in an interview. “You cannot claim all those things when we have bill numbers and dates to back up that you didn’t uphold all those things.”
Hanger has served in the legislature for 32 years, and he has a track record of working across the aisle to achieve results.
The senator has a conservative voting record, but said he’s become the party’s new center because more Republicans are running to the right. He viewed Tuesday’s primary as an important test of whether the middle could hold.
Reaching Prince Michel shortly before 9 p.m., with her husband in attendance, Freitas thanked her supporters for their hard work and congratulated Hanger on his victory.
“My campaign stuck to the facts 100 percent,” she told the crowd. “... It was about his voting record not lining up with what he claims he was.”
Freitas, 40, ran an aggressive challenge against Hanger. A self-described “liberty Republican,” she focused her campaign on criticizing him on Medicaid, guns, abortion and taxes.
Freitas zeroed in on Hanger ushering Medicaid expansion through the GOP-controlled Senate, his vote against a bill to allow Virginians to carry concealed guns without a permit, and his previous votes for tax increases to finance transportation improvements.
In her first run at elective office, Freitas was endorsed by Gun Owners of America, FreedomWorks and Libertarian group Americans for Liberty. Volunteers with the latter two groups knocked on thousands of residents’ doors to turn out the vote for her.
As a senior Senate Finance Committee member, Hanger was a key player in expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act to 400,000 low-income Virginians. Hanger viewed the expansion as a Christian imperative, but Republican activists have criticized party members who voted for it as betraying conservative principles.
About 280,000 people—many with cancer, substance addiction or diabetes—now have health care under Virginia’s Medicaid expansion. In the district Hanger represents, about 10,000 people have signed up for Medicaid. Hospital and health-care groups donated heavily to his campaign.
Freitas also criticized Hanger for passing a budget that included a pilot program to provide low-income women with long-acting, reversible contraception.
After the General Assembly approved the budget, the state health department identified Planned Parenthood as a provider. Freitas said Hanger was funneling money to an abortion provider. Hanger said he doesn’t support Planned Parenthood because he opposes abortion, and wasn’t involved in the health department’s selection of the organization as a program participant.
“It’s time for him to go,” Culpeper resident Mark Attanasio said of Hanger when interviewed late Tuesday at the polling place in Rixeyville in Culpeper County.
“His voting record over the last seven years has proven that he’s not the same as his constituents anymore. Between taxes, killing good gun bills, and his pushback and voting record on the Hyde Amendment,” Attanasio said.
Congress’ Hyde Amendment bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except to save the life of the woman, or if a pregnancy arises from incest or rape.
About Tina Freitas, Attanasio said, “I like her conservative views on reducing government size and the tax base, and both her and her husband, Nick’s, stances on gun control. I fully expect that she’s going to be voting the same way he is, and that’s how I want the votes to be down there in Richmond.”
Hanger, who owns a commercial real-estate business, will face Democrat Annette Hyde of Madison County in November. The district votes strongly Republican, so Tuesday’s primary likely means Hanger will return to the Senate.
While knocking on doors, Freitas told people she worried that Democrats would turn out to vote for Hanger because the primary was open to all. Virginians don’t register by party.
In a video posted to Facebook on Tuesday, Nick Freitas said he saw a “bus full of Democrats” arrive at a polling station, but didn’t elaborate on how he identified them as Democrats.
The 24th Senate District crosses the Blue Ridge from the Shenandoah Valley to the northern Piedmont. It includes Augusta, Greene and Madison counties, the cities of Staunton and Waynesboro, and parts of Rockingham and Culpeper counties.
It was the third time Hanger has had a primary challenge since his election to the Senate in 1995. In 2007, he defeated Scott Sayre, a conservative to his right, with 53 percent of the vote. Following the rise of the tea-party movement, which took hold in the Shenandoah Valley, Hanger faced more disapproval from party activists. In 2015, he quashed two challengers—Dan Moxley and Marshall Pattie—with 60% of the vote.
Tina and Nick Freitas were high-school sweethearts, have been married about 20 years, and have three children.
Her husband served in the U.S. Army, including two tours of Iraq. A two-term delegate, Nick Freitas competed in last year’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate, losing narrowly to nominee Corey Stewart, who lost by a wide margin against incumbent Tim Kaine, a Democrat and former governor.
Star-Exponent staff writers Clint Schemmer and Allison Brophy Champion, Roanoke Times reporter Amy Friedenberger and Waynesboro News Virginia reporter Jerry Blair contributed to this report.