The craziest possible outcome?

Vote today! Polls in Virginia are open from 6am to 7pm, and you can find your polling place here.

On the national level, both Larry Sabato and 538 are predicting a GOP Senate majority, and local races seem pretty easy to predict as well. The caveat, of course, is that anything can happen, as we in Virginia know well. So why not engage in some irresponsible speculation?

If you'll remember, Eric Cantor's early resignation created a special election, held at the same time as the regular election, that will decide who will finish out Cantor's term this year. This means that voters essentially have to choose the same guy twice.

But what if they vote for two different guys?

Libertarian candidate James Carr is on the regular election ballot, but not on the special election. In the unlikely scenario that Carr siphons off a large percentage of Republican votes, Brat would then lose the general election to Trammell. But if Carr is the difference-maker in the general election, his absence in the special election would give that victory to Brat.

So in this case we would end up with two different Congressmen: Dave Brat would serve out Cantor's term in November and December, and then Jack Trammell would be sworn in for a full two-year term in January.

EXTREMELY unlikely, I know. But if you are a fan of political upsets (or chaos), this is your ideal scenario. (And I can think of at least one institution that wouldn't mind keeping the spotlight on the 7th district for a little while longer.)

Social Issues Not a Factor in VA 7th

On thing that has surprised me in the Virginia 7th District race: Jack Trammell is not following the Democratic playbook for this election cycle.

The recurring theme, for Senate races at least, is to remind voters of the Republicans' "extremist" positions on social issues like abortion, birth control, and marriage equality. Democratic candidates in other races are hammering this home, in part because they see women as a key demographic in this cycle.

Of course, the strategy is not without its risks. Colorado's Democratic Senator Mark Udall has been tagged as "Mark Uterus" for his one-track campaign, and national polls suggest that the issues that drove the "war on women" narrative in 2012 just aren't as salient for voters in 2014. It's possible that Trammell looked at the demographic landscape of the 7th District, and decided that there weren't enough votes to be won by bringing up birth control.

Still, it's somewhat odd to see issues that were so prevalent even two years ago get pushed to the bottom of the agenda. (Literally - Brat lists "Uphold Human Life" as the last of his important issues, after even the super-important need for auditing the Federal Reserve.)

This state of affairs reflects an important feature of recent politics: the dramatic success of the Tea Party and its allies in reframing the political agenda around economic issues over the past six years. I published a piece in the lefty watchdog mag, The Public Eye, this past week, in which I argued that the base of the GOP may still be Christian evangelicals, but they are organized along economic lines now. I "fought" with the editors about this point (politely, of course - they're great folks), and maybe I need more data about this. But I still believe this point from an earlier draft of the article is true:

Most Tea Party organizations avoid the controversial social issues like abortion that social conservatives have pursued for decades. Even after a resurgence of such issues at the state level—witness the Republican “war on women,” in which laws curtailing reproductive rights have metastasized in conservative-leaning states—economic issues remain the main concerns of Tea Party organizations, if not individual members.

My conclusion to this point remained in the article: "Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals." That's Dave Brat to a T - he's stuck to his economic message in the campaign. But if he wins on Tuesday, he should be a reliable vote on conservative social issues as well.

Party rules squeeze out challengers

As if voting wasn't complicated enough, voters in the Virginia 7th will now have to face two different elections on November 4. Because Eric Cantor has effectively resigned his office instead of waiting until his term is up, the Governor has added a special election to the ballot.

So voters will have to make two choices: who will finish the rest of Cantor's term this year, and who will take over the seat in 2015. Of course, most will choose the same guy, but it will almost certainly confuse some folks.

And there may be one big difference in the two simultaneous elections: Libertarian candidate James Carr will most likely NOT be on the special election ballot. Why? Because state rules automatically place major-party candidates on the ballot, but force third parties to collect 1,000 signatures. Carr is unlikely to be able to gather that many in just a few weeks.

Carr appealed to the state election board, which quite rightly said they could do nothing, as the law is clear. But that's the point: the system is rigged to prevent challengers from having much of a chance against the two main parties. Democrats and Republicans may be ideologically opposed to each other, but they both conspire to control the electoral process.

The rules also work to limit challengers within parties, as well. For special elections, parties organize meetings where members can vote to select the candidate. (Trammell was already chosen at such a meeting.) Brat, leaving nothing to chance, warned supporters in an e-mail last week to turn out for this week's Republican mass meeting:

While it only makes sense that the person elected to serve in January also be elected to serve in the lame duck session, other potential candidates could register over the next week to run for the nomination.  That’s why it’s so important that our team shows up in huge numbers to vote on August 14th.

Brat is now well-ensconced as the Republican candidate, so he shouldn't face any challenge. But he really needn't have worried; the party rules note that unless anyone files to face him in a vote for the special election, the meeting will be cancelled. And oh yeah: if you want to challenge Brat, you need to pay the party a $2,500 fee.

Sure, there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why these rules are in place; you want serious candidates only, people would run their cats for office, yadda yadda. The net effect of all of these rules, though, is to severely restrict voting choices. If you're wondering why most elections seem to offer a choice between Tweedledum vs. Tweedledee, it's because that's exactly the way the parties want it.

New vs. old media in VA-7 campaign

Jack Trammell's campaign is continuing to develop. There have been some growing pains, like a failure to file his financial disclosure forms. (Although this kind of thing happens all the time.) But he's picked up a pro campaign manager, Atlanta Democrat Beth Cope, and his website is looking more and more like a "real" candidate's website. (No longer does he have the "minimal" online presence CNN noted when he was first thrust into the spotlight.)

And so his fundraising appeals have developed as well. The latest "Team Trammell" e-mail, sent on Tuesday, looks like a typical direct mail fundraising letter. It warns that Dave Brat is hanging around with E.W. Jackson, the conservative Republican who ran for VA Lt. Governor last year. The intent is clear: paint Brat as an extremist because he hangs around with extremists. (The e-mail reminds us, "The former Lt. Governor candidate made national headlines for his views on the evils of yoga! According to Jackson, yoga could open individuals to Satan." It also mentions the term "Tea Party" 8 times in less than 300 words.)

But what's really interesting about this fundraising e-mail (although maybe only to me) is that it notes that Brat and Jackson were together on a "radio show." But that's not correct; what Brat did was appear on a conference call with his fellow conservative. That's right: a conference call. In 2014.

Jackson is an interesting figure. His failed campaign in 2013 was called an "unmitigated disaster" for the GOP, and that's probably an understatement. (His statements on gays make his "Satan's yoga" claims look downright cute.) But Jackson runs an organization, Staying True to America's National Destiny, or STAND, that runs weekly conference calls.

Calls like these are not unusual on Wall Street or for political campaigns, but they're usually used to run virtual press conferences for the media. (Although they are sometimes cracked open by the public, with strange results.) But STAND's weekly call is available to anyone, with the number published on the website. Jackson clearly means to use it not to educate the media, but to reach out to supporters and promote his ideas and the ideas of his guests.

This is more than a fringe operation: Jackson's first guest when he started these calls in February was Mike Huckabee, and he's hosted other conservative luminaries like Louie Gohmert and Allan West. It seems unlikely so many heavy hitters would show up for Jackson unless they thought he was getting people to listen.

So who is calling in to hear Jackson talk to Brat? I'd venture a guess that it's people who don't spend a lot of time online. These folks tend to be older, tend to be more conservative, and tend to vote Republican. Demographics matter in campaigns, and Brat is smart not to ignore this. In fact, Brat is continuing the strategy that worked for him against Cantor: lay low in the mainstream media, but work the conservative networks to make sure you are speaking to your own people.

(And it's not like Jackson ignores the interwebs: he has a YouTube channel where he publishes short videos and the audio from his conference calls.)

Media coverage and scholarly studies of campaigns are understandably excited about new technologies and new ways of reaching voters; the Obama campaign famously took the use of data to new heights, for example. But we should remember that there are plenty of people who use older tech, who are more comfortable on the phone than online. And these people matter in elections, particularly for Republicans.

So Brat continues to find ways to reach out to his supporters. We'll see how successful Trammell is in reaching out to his.

James Carr is not Mike Dickinson (says James Carr)

Tom Nash has a piece in this week's Style Weekly about Mike Dickinson, the oddball VCU-grad and strip club owner who is "running" for Congress. Dickinson is not much more than a social media presence, gaining some notoriety for sparring with Fox News hosts in the spring and, more recently, putting a bounty out for nude pics of teen hunter Kendal Jones.

Dickinson seems to be enjoying himself, so good for him. But he's causing problems for other candidates in the race: certainly James Carr, and possibly even Jack Trammell.

Nash's article rightly suggests that Dave Brat's stunning primary win has opened the door to opportunists like Dickinson and Tareq Salihi. (And I say "rightly" because I agree, and not just because he quotes my department chair on the subject.) They may not believe they can win, but they're correct to think that they can at least gain some attention (as the Style Weekly article on Dickinson already proves).

But libertarian James Carr is not a write-in candidate; he's actually on the ballot. Articles like Nash's, that suggest that the VA-7 race is now "a magnet for alternative choices," have the effect of lumping Carr in with Dickinson and Salihi, even while Carr denies the connection. As Nash writes:

The Libertarian, Carr, doesn't consider [Dickinson] a serious candidate, and doesn't want to see him treated as one. "Absolutely not," Carr says. "Anyone who qualifies for the ballot, I'd say that's appropriate. I put in six months of door-to-door work."

No kidding. Carr wants to be seen as one of three guys on the ballot, not one of a bunch of fringe challengers to the two major party candidates.

I used to live in New York State, where electoral fusion rules allow third parties to flourish (at least relative to other states). I especially remember the 2002 election, where incumbent Governor George Pataki was facing Democrat Carl McCall. The debates before the election featured not just the two major party candidates, but also FIVE third-party candidates! This was great for democratic politics, and actually exciting to watch. At the same time, it was a strategic victory for Pataki. Rather than a debate between the two major challengers, the optics of the debate depicted the Governor and a bunch of challengers. By appearing with the non-serious, third party candidates, Democrat McCall looked like just one more wanna-be.

And that's the problem that write-in candidates like Dickinson pose for Libertarian Carr in Virginia. Carr wants to be taken seriously, but he gets lumped in with reality stars and Twitter campaigns. This could even be a problem for Trammell, although his significant fundraising totals and his stiff-but-serviceable appearance on MSNBC this week suggest he will be taken more seriously.

The bottom line: fans of more inclusive politics should be happy, but that inclusion comes at a cost for the most serious challenger.

Oh no not Salahi again

I thought maybe it was a joke: Style Weekly reported that none other than Tareq Salahi was jumping into the VA 7 race against Brat and Trammell. Salahi, you may remember, is the businessman and wanna-be politician most famous for crashing a White House dinner with his then-wife, reality star Michaele Salahi.

But no joke: Salahi has apparently gathered enough signatures and even gave himself some money from his failed gubernatorial campaign.

Just in case you're wondering: no, it doesn't appear that Salahi lives in the Virginia 7th. The Constitution requires residency in the STATE, but not necessarily the district. (The idea was low barriers to entry for the house closest to the people; one of the few times our founding fathers were friendly to anyone but elites.) Still, being called out for carpetbagging seems to be the least of Salahi's problems.

Salahi is, of course, not a serious threat to challenge Dave Brat or even Jack Trammell in the district. But his presence does threaten to turn the race from what some had hoped would be a high-minded exchange of ideas (ahem) into a circus. And it may make it harder for media to continue ignoring the weirdo pseudo-candidate Mike Dickinson.

For those looking for a serious alternative to the inter-collegiate #Brammell contest, however, you could do worse than James Carr, the libertarian candidate who has definitely made it onto the ballot. The Salahi news is a mixed bag for Carr - it might bring attention to candidates outside the two parties, but Carr may get lumped in with Salahi as non-serious challengers. Stay tuned.

No worries for Brat

So Dave Brat's campaign reported yesterday that he raised about $400k during the last quarter. I'm with Steve Albertson at The Bull Elephant: this is very good news for Brat. He's getting his money from individual donors, but that's not surprising; his out-of-nowhere victory against Cantor was sure to inspire fervent Tea Partiers to cut a check, at least during this past cycle. But it's a healthy amount, enough to dissuade any national Democrats from investing in the race. (Apparently his opponent Jack Trammell has only raised $155k - a fine amount for a Democrat in that district, but not enough to raise any national eyebrows.)

Brat is essentially winning a version of what political scientists call the "invisible primary" - the race for money among candidates before the actual primary vote. Here, instead of trying to fend off primary challengers, the Brat campaign needs to worry about national Democrats thinking he's a weak candidate and funneling money into his district. The current fundraising report should be enough to do that.

If you really have time to kill, you could look through Brat's FEC filing - or any FEC filing, for that matter. You can learn interesting tidbits of information. For example, it appears we know one Congressman who will take Brat under his wing if he wins: Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who has donated to Brat's campaign. If you want a clue as to how Dave Brat will operate in office, Massie is a Tea-Party backed freshman who symbolically voted against John Boehner in the 2013 Speaker elections. (Apparently he's angling for some kind of leadership role among "GOP rebels.")