LOCUST GROVE, Va. (AP) — Two years ago, partisan control of the Virginia General Assembly came down to a random drawing of names out of a ceramic bowl. This year, it could come down to whether a Republican incumbent with a tricky-to-spell last name can win as a write-in candidate.
"I hope you all enjoy the most elaborate spelling bee in Virginia," Del. Nick Freitas told a group of constituents at a town hall recently. Freitas, a conservative who often espouses personal responsibility, failed to turn in his paperwork on time, a mistake that left him off the ballot.
The consequences could extend much further in Virginia's hard-fought, high-profile contest for control of the state legislature.
Democrats in the onetime conservative stronghold are within striking distance of winning a majority of the General Assembly, which would give them control of both houses of the legislature and the governor's office for the first time in two decades.
National groups are pouring money in, testing their strategies, and both sides see the races as potential bellwethers for the presidential election next year.
And it could all come down to Freitas' forgetfulness.
His race should have been an easy win. His mostly rural district in between Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville leans heavily Republican — Trump won it by nearly 30 percentage points.
The misstep plays against Freitas' libertarian brand. The former Green Beret often espouses the need for less government and more personal responsibility. An engaging public speaker and outspoken supporter of gun rights, Freitas is viewed as a rising star among the GOP and was backed by U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee in an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate last year. He's been mentioned as a possible a challenger to Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger next year.
Most political observers believe Freitas will win this year's race, but a successful write-in campaign is uncharted territory in Virginia.
"We treat every single day as if we're running for our lives," Freitas said.
Democrat Ann Ridgeway, the only candidate whose name will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot, said she doesn't know what effect Freitas' write-in campaign will have on her chances of winning but said she's found the experience of running against a candidate who failed to get submit his paperwork on time "really strange."
"Like, how do you not do that?" she said.
Under law, Freitas had to submit a "certificate of candidate qualification" to the state elections office and a local Republican official had to certify him as the party's nominee. Neither form was submitted on deadline. That left Freitas to try several maneuvers to try and get on the ballot — including withdrawing his candidacy and being renominated by local Republicans — before he settled on a write-in campaign this summer.
Ridgeway supporter Brenda Clements said she used to support Freitas but feels he hasn't been focused enough on helping local constituents. She said his failure to get on the ballot smacks of "pure laziness and entitlement."
But Joseph Steele, a retiree who backs Freitas, said he isn't bothered by the misstep.
"Everybody's made a mistake," Steele said.
Freitas said he takes responsibility for not having double-checked that the correct paperwork was submitted on time but said the State Board of Elections, which is made up of two Democrats and one Republican, has treated him unfairly. He noted that the board didn't keep other candidates with paperwork issues off the ballot and said it's unlikely a high-profile Democrat would have been treated as he has.
Former Del. John O'Bannon, the Republican member of the elections board, chided Freitas at a board meeting this summer for making "ad hominem" and unfair attacks on election officials.
Freitas' chances of holding on to his seat have been bolstered by a $500,000 donation from GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, an Illinois billionaire.
That's scared away Democrats from investing heavily in the contest and allowed Freitas to finance what's likely to be a costly write-in effort. Those plans include having workers at each poll trying to coach voters on how to properly fill in a write-in ballot.
Freitas campaign manager, Joe Desilets, said the campaign also has hired political consultants who worked for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who launched a successful write-in campaign in 2010.
Under Virginia law, write-in ballots that make a voter's intent clear will count. That means voters can misspell his name without penalty — up to a point.
"I would ask that we don't try that too hard," Freitas told supporters.