RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The candidates in a special election that will determine which political party controls the state Senate are spending big money and throwing sharp elbows ahead of Tuesday's contest.
Republican Ben Chafin and Democrat Mike Hymes have each raised more than $700,000 for their campaigns and spent heavily on television ads, according to state campaign finance and Federal Communications Commission records. Those totals are likely to increase during the final days of the campaign.
Chafin, a member of the House of Delegates, has a natural advantage in the heavily red 38th District, which has voted for statewide Republican candidates by about 30 percentage-point margins in recent elections. The district stretches across several counties in the heart of the economically depressed coal country in southwest Virginia.
Independent Rick Mullins is also running.
Republicans currently hold a 20-19 seat advantage in the Senate. Democrats would regain control with a Hymes' victory, as Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam would be the tie-breaking vote in a split Senate.
With control of the upper chamber at stake, the Senate caucuses of both parties have invested heavily in the race. Hymes has received more than $500,000 in backing from the Senate Democratic caucus while Chafin has received more than $300,000 from the Republican counterpart, according to campaign finance records.
Hymes has tried to distance himself from unpopular party leaders like President Barack Obama while heavily attacking his GOP opponent. He said he's hopeful he can defeat Chafin.
"My chances are very good," said Hymes. "I wouldn't be in the race if I didn't think I would win."
A third-generation coal miner, Hymes has played up his roots in the coal industry while calling Chafin a "millionaire lawyer" who is out of touch with the district's voters.
In one TV ad, the Hymes campaign accuses Chafin of supporting a costly state Capitol complex renovation instead of supporting education funding for southwest Virginia.
"He came out right from the get-go slinging mud," said Chafin, who said the ad is untrue and noted that many of the Senate Democrats who are helping to bankroll Hymes' campaign support the Capitol renovation.
Chafin accused Hymes of running a negative campaign based on the "politics of fear" to deflect from the Democratic Party's unpopularity in the area. One Chafin television ad's tagline says Hymes is "just like Obama."
In particular, Chafin said Hymes' support of a modified Medicaid expansion plan is out of touch with the view of the constituents. The Affordable Care Act allows states to expand Medicaid eligibility to able-bodied low-income adults, an option Virginia has so far rejected.
Hymes, a member of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, said he's a conservative who often differs from his party leaders on several issues. Chafin has misrepresented his positions on gun control, coal taxes, and the Affordable Care Act. Hymes said he supports a modified Medicaid expansion plan that had bipartisan support in the state Senate earlier this year.
"It's a Virginia solution, not a Washington solution," Hymes said.
Medicaid expansion was the central issue during a months-long budget showdown between Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the GOP-controlled House of Delegates. Republicans prevailed after the 38th District's most recent senator, conservative Democrat Phil Puckett, abruptly resigned in June. The move gave Republicans control of the entire General Assembly and ultimately forced McAuliffe to sign a state budget that did not include Medicaid expansion.
A possible job offer to Puckett by the GOP-controlled Virginia tobacco commission at the time of his resignation is the subject of an FBI investigation.