With the 2017 election cycle having wrapped up last week, one of the popular topics between the public and candidates was the role of social media in this year’s local election.
Following the 2016 presidential election where social media was a polarizing topic – this year’s local elections followed suit.
In the biggest upset of the election, challenger Marshall Keene defeated incumbent Elizabeth Hutchins for the Stevensburg District School Board seat.
Keene was extremely active on social media, utilizing Facebook from the start of his campaign in the spring to advocate for his main issues in the race – the ability for school resource officers to be armed and the bus driver shortage Culpeper County faces.
Almost daily, Keene had a post on Facebook discussing his stance or alerting constituents where he could be found to talk about the issues. The use of social media was a direct way to communicate with parents, he said.
“I think it played a huge role in it,” Keene said. “I think social media is the new form of reaching voters.”
Facebook, when it was first introduced, was used primarily by the younger generation. Keene notes that many of those have “graduated” to adulthood and still utilize the platform. His ability to inform, communicate and engage on Facebook helped him win the district, he said.
“The big thing I learned with my Facebook page, whether people agreed or disagreed with my ideas, they always came to my page with an open dialogue and they knew I’d give them a response,” Keene said.
The dialogue extended to his opponent, Hutchins, who said that her interactions with social media haven’t always been positive but it allows her to communicate knowledge others might not be privy to.
“I think social media plays a role in any election, there’s no way to get around it,” Hutchins said. “Having experience with social media on school issues, sometimes people don’t get all the facts and that’s unfortunate.”
Keene and Hutchins sparred on Facebook often, with Hutchins directing people to contact her if she felt the information was being misrepresented.
“I think it was a mixture of both (of people believing what was written and others asking for more information), more folks simply took what was out there,” Hutchins said. “I had some people who said their minds had been changed after talking to me. I know I changed some votes with conversation.”
Keene was constantly responding to his opponent’s conversation, usually with a mount of information he had gleaned from Freedom of Information Act requests.
“I did respond to them and I followed them up with facts,” Keene said. “I was able to prove where those facts came from. I provided FOIA requests from the school system themselves. With social media you have to be careful with words, but you have to be able to back up what you’re saying.”
He said he intends to continue to use social media as a school board member.
“I will not shut down my Facebook page, it’s the easiest and most effective ways to communicate with parents,” Keene said.
During the school board forum on Oct. 26, Jefferson District candidate Michelle North (who was running unopposed and was re-elected) commented on the social media aspect of the race.
“One thing that has brought me great concern is the use of social media in this election cycle,” North said. “It has not brought out the best in our community. Personal, unfounded comments have been made on Facebook along with bullying behaviors and intimidating statements made directly to a school board candidate. Unfortunately I’ve been the recipient of some of that behavior. This is unacceptable and our community deserves better than this.”
Other candidates stayed with the more traditional route. Jefferson District Board of Supervisor Brad Rosenberger, who won over challenger Chuck Duncan, said he avoided online conversations. He advertised in the Voter’s Guide published by the Culpeper Times and participated in community forums.
Rosenberger ran on character and trust and he thanked those that showed trust in him.
“I just want to thank everyone for coming out and supporting me,” he said. “I’m humbled by the results and I look forward to serving you for another four years.”
In the Town Council Election, incumbent Jon Russell was the only candidate with a website and Facebook presence. He attributed that to helping him garner the second most amount of votes and being re-elected.
“For me to get my message out, to communicate what I wanted to the public, it was very beneficial,” Russell said. “I can see how many people looked at it or it crossed their feed.
“It’s more the name identification. People get on Facebook and they see an advertisement or a post that crosses their stream. They just want to know what you’re about and if anything, just to know your name.”
Party affiliation within local races
Another phenomenon this election cycle was the fact that Keene ran as a Republican.
Russell, also the chairman of the Culpeper Republican Committee, agreed that it may have been the first time he’s seen a school board member run with party affiliation.
“It’s an interesting dynamic, typically school board and town council you don’t run on a political party,” Russell said. “Marshall decided that’s what he wanted to do. To his credit, some of that paid off. He made an appealing case that it was time for a change, and that was part of it.”
Keene said it was important to him to communicate to voters what he stood for.
“When I first started this thing, I wanted people to know where my party affiliation lies,” Keene said. “It’s important for people to know what opinions are as far as my political morals and values and my moral compass.”
Russell said that while most local candidates don’t advertise or run on their party affiliation, most have one.
“I think everyone knows that even if you run as an independent in a non-partisan race, you still have party affiliation to some level,” Russell said. “It’s kind of the unspoken thing no one says but is there. Everyone has a political bent, no one comes with a blank slate. Everyone comes with their own belief.”
Keene believes that his victory will lead to other local candidates following suite and seeking out party endorsements.
“I think it is going to be a blueprint,” Keene said. “Politics have turned around since the last presidential election. They want their local elected officials to align with political parties. They want to know how they’re going to vote.”
Another interesting note on the Stevensburg race was it was the first time since 2000 that the seat was contested. Hutchins had been the Cedar Mountain representative since 2001, but was redistricted in 2013. She ran unopposed then for the Stevensburg seat and won.
She wondered this year if the redistricting played a role in her loss.
“Last time I was unopposed, there wasn’t much of an issue but I’ve pondered over that and I think it was a factor. I’m on the outer edge of Stevensburg,” she said. “I was for Cedar Mountain, too, I was on the edge of the line for both of them. I think it was a factor.”
With all the different factors in play, it will be interesting to see how the local races in 2017 influence elections going forward in Culpeper County, with another national election looming in 2020.