The leading Democratic candidate for a Virginia House seat the party is targeting in 2018 moved to the state just a year-and-a-half ago, but you'd never know it from watching his campaign's first ad.
Roger Dean Huffstetler, who is both outraising and outspending his Democratic opponents in Virginia's largely rural fifth district, announced his campaign less than a year after he moved in the summer of 2016 to Charlottesville, a blue city located near the center of a rural red district. His first ad—which, based on a nearly $50,000 expenditure, appears to have been created by a major D.C. advertising firm that made ads for Barack Obama's presidential campaigns—attempts to erase any outsider image he may have.
The ad, "Best I Can," opens with Huffstetler driving an old white Ford truck through a Virginia farm and then sitting atop a bale of hay to speak of his rural upbringing. The way he speaks, however, caught the ear of one Virginia voter.
"I've seen him speak publicly," said Richard Foxx, a farm owner from inside the district. "The R.D. Huffstetler I've heard over the last year and a half doesn't quite sound like our current governor Ralph Northam, but in the ad he sounds a lot like our current governor Ralph Northam."
A comparison of the way Huffstetler speaks in the ad to the way he spoke during a 2013 tech conference presentation—Huffstetler lived in California from 2010 to 2015 and founded a tech company called Zillabyte—reveals the addition of a strong southern drawl in the ad.
Here are clips of the two videos together for your own judgment:
"To someone who's just tuning in or sees it on Facebook, they're probably going to think, ‘Hey, this guy is just a good old boy from Virginia,'" Foxx said.
Huffstetler's resumé is a good one, but it's not a Virginian one.
He was born in North Carolina and went to college in Georgia. After being deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine, he moved to Boston to attend Harvard University for graduate school. In 2010, he moved to San Francisco for a consulting job and eventually founded Zillabyte, a data analytics company.
His entrance into politics came in April 2015 when he moved to Washington, D.C., to become chief of staff for Massachusetts representative Seth Moulton (D.), a fellow Harvard graduate and Marine who is actively recruiting military veterans like Huffstetler to run for Congress.
Huffstetler stayed on as Moulton's chief of staff until June 15, 2016, according to congressional records. It was after he left that job that he moved to Charlottesville, where his wife got a job at a local hospital. In July 2016, he referred on Twitter to Charlottesville as his "new hometown."
Records show Huffstetler first registered to vote in Virginia in May 2016. His previous voter registrations were in Massachusetts and California, where he was a voter in House minority leader Nancy Pelosi's district.
Huffstetler's lack of Virginia ties actually made presenting himself as a Virginian in an ad a challenge, according to Foxx, who told the Washington Free Beacon he knows many local farmers who were cold-called by the campaign to ask whether they could use their land to shoot the ad.
Foxx says his initial reaction to getting contacted by the campaign was shock that a candidate in a district as rural as Virginia's fifth had to reach out to strangers to find a farmer.
"He was calling around locally to a bunch of people with known farms," Foxx said.
"My initial thought was, ‘You're running for Congress in the fifth district of Virginia and nobody on your staff or that you know is a person with a farm?' If you get out of Charlottesville, the whole district is rural."
The campaign also had to reach out for the white Ford truck which served as the ad's centerpiece, according to a December Facebook post by Huffstetler's campaign manager.
"Charlottesville Friends, I am in need of an old Ford pickup truck for a few hours next week," wrote Kevin Zeithaml. "Does anyone in the Charlottesville area have one that they would be willing to let me snag for a few hours at the end of next week? No Chevy or GMC need apply."
The effort to present Huffstetler as a Virginian extends to his campaign website as well.
His website said last week that he and his wife are "proud UVA football season ticket holders," without mentioning that there has only been a single football season since he moved there. It was updated this week as Charlottesville transitioned to a full-fledged basketball town—he now enjoys going to "UVA basketball games." The website makes no mention of working in Massachusetts, California, or Washington, D.C.
Neither Huffstetler nor his campaign responded to numerous requests for an interview.
Geoffrey Skelley, an expert on Virginia elections for University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Huffstetler's lack of local ties could hurt his chances to win the Democratic nomination, which will this year be decided by a convention and not a primary.
"Having strong local ties could be vital in the nomination process," Skelley said. "Given Huffstetler’s impressive fundraising, the fact that Democrats are using a convention rather than a primary may limit the meaningfulness of his war chest advantage to some degree, at least in the nomination process."
Skelley said having a local connection to the area is "traditionally an important trait in most legislative elections," but there are situations where "a candidate truly drops into a district and wins it"—he cited Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R., Ind.), who moved to his district a month before launching his campaign in 2015.
Federal Election Commission filings show Huffstetler has thus far reported more money in itemized donations from Massachusetts, $161,737, and from California, $116,107, than he has from Virginia, $88,671.
If Huffstetler were to win the election, he would become the first representative in the history of Virginia's fifth district—first represented by former President James Madison in 1789—not to have spent the majority of his life in Virginia. Only two representatives, including the current Rep. Tom Garrett Jr. (R.), were born outside of Virginia. Garrett, however, moved to Virginia during his childhood and has remained there since.