Shakeup in Congress not necessarily good news for VA

Last week Congressman Scott Rigell announced he would retire rather than run for reelection. Following on the heels of Robert Hurt's similar announcement in December, this does more than suggest that serving in Congress is not the inspiring job it once was. (Maybe it's not so much fun to work at a job at which almost everyone thinks you're terrible.)

But combined with events of the past few years, these announcements portend a dramatic re-shaping of the Virginia Congressional delegation.

These changes started in 2014, most famously with giant-slayer Dave Brat defeating Eric Cantor. But in the same year, Don Beyer replaced seven-term Congressman Jim Moran in the 8th and Barbara Comstock took over for Frank Wolf (12 terms) in the 10th. As a result, Virginia's House reps are much more green than they have been in years.

And there may be plenty more changes to come. Thanks to court-ordered redistricting plans, Republican Randy Forbes' district is not as safe as it once was. (Forbes and his fellow Republicans are challenging the court decision, hoping to delay it until after the next election.)

And Brat similarly finds himself in a much less conservative district. I have argued with some of my colleagues (we understandably have an interest in our former colleague's career) over whether Brat would be challenged in his first re-election campaign, typically the time a Congressional rep is most vulnerable. My main argument was that he was perfectly safe in his arch conservative district; a moderate couldn't defeat him, and you can't run to his right. (There is no room to the right of Dave Brat.)

But now, under the new district plan, Brat loses some of these arch-conservative suburbs and rural areas -- the parts of Hanover County where you find yellow "Gadsden signs" decrying socialism and demanding answers about Benghazi. Former supporters of Cantor and those moderate Republicans who might tire of Brat's Tea Party posturing could support an opponent -- like Henrico Sheriff Mike Wade, who cannily announced he would run against Brat shortly before the redistricting plan was revealed.

Finally, to top it all off, 5-term Congressman Rob Wittman now says he's going to run for Governor in 2017. He faces a tough primary against Ed Gillespie and possibly Ken Cuccinelli, but he's a formidable candidate who certainly is more than a long shot.

So the next Congress could have as many as FIVE more rookies to add to newbies Comstock and Beyer. Turnover can bring new ideas to Congress, right? So why should Virginians be worried?

As much as ideology and partisanship dominate today's politics, the game in Congress is still about delivering to the folks back home. Pork-barrel politics are even more important in states like Virginia, where federal dollars play a huge role in funding jobs and economic development in the northern part of the state (DC administration) and coastal regions (military bases and aerospace).

It's a lot harder to deliver funding to your home district when you lose the House Majority Leader as part of your delegation, and then elect a group of rookies with little political experience or connections. Forbes would be a particularly big loss to the Norfolk area; as a Republican, he defends his district from the spending cuts that his more ideological colleagues would like to implement.

We'll see what happens with redistricting, which is still unsettled. Even if the plan goes through this year, it would still be a mistake to count out either Forbes (a gifted campaigner) or even Brat -- who, for all his faults, is a perfect candidate for today's Trumpian GOP. Still, it's clear that no matter what, the House delegation from Virginia will be more inexperienced next year. Virginians may like term limits -- after all, we're the only state with a one-term governor -- but we may end up unhappy with the consequences.

So Long VA Redistricting Deadline

I spoke with Mark Tenia of WRIC-8 News tonight about the VA redistricting issue. (Video and transcript available here, at least at time of posting.) As usual, I thought Mark did a nice job of boiling down a super-complicated issue into a tiny amount of time, but of course he has to leave out a lot. A few additional thoughts:

The federal courts will control the redistricting, as the VA Democrats wanted. But the Dems won't necessarily get what they want, for two reasons:

  1. The federal courts, as much as they are decried for being activist by right-wing critics, are typically respectful of state politics, particularly when they would have to step into fraught political battles. This is especially true with the VA 3rd, where it's not like anti-racism battles of the past. There is no clear idea, on both sides, about how best to serve the interests of minority voters, so it's not the case here that federal judges can feel like progressive crusaders fixing the backward ideas of local yokels. And the courts will likely respect the local process;  so if the Republicans propose a map soon, they might be able to influence the outcome.
  2. One thing I wish that Mark had given me more time to talk about is the surrounding districts. All three of the surrounding Republican incumbents -- Brat, Rigell, and Forbes -- won by close to 60% majorities in 2014. Sure, more minority voters in any of those districts might encourage stronger Democratic candidates and more state and national support for their campaigns. But 60% is a long way from 49%. And while the Republicans could draw a map that sacrifices an annoying Tea Partier like Brat, the GOP could also try to keep all three seats by shaving off pieces of each. The courts might like such a conservative course, one that would prevent them from being accused of restructuring a state's Congressional delegation.

Norm Leahy and Paul Goldman wrote a nice primer last month in the WaPo, arguing that it was likely that "Democrats win their bet and get a second seat primed for an African American Democrat." Still, this won't affect the fact that the VA electorate is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, while the Congressional delegation is 8 to 3 -- or, in the Dems' wildest dreams, 7 to 4. The state is still going to be artfully carved up to benefit the GOP, and the VA Dems don't seem to have any way to fix that.

Virginia vs. the Tea Party

Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA) stopped by my college on Monday morning for a couple of Q&A sessions with students. (He's a Macon alum; so Bob Lindgren's half-joking reference to R-MC as the "cradle of congressmen" has at least some basis in reality.)

To his credit, Forbes answered student questions without really gloating over the Republicans' big electoral win last week. Instead, the surprising news from his visit was Forbes essentially calling for another stimulus package, arguing that we need to ramp up defense spending considerably in order to protect American interests abroad.

OK, so this isn't breaking news; Forbes has been beating this drum for a while, and even has a whole section of his website devoted to "Strong Defense, Strong America" data and arguments. Along with Democrat Bobby Scott, Forbes represents the Norfolk/VA Beach area, where many people live off of naval defense contracts. Defense spending is a big issue for the state's economy in general; Northern VA has been called a "mecca for military contractors."

Still, Forbes' message seemed somewhat jarring in our own 7th Congressional District, where my (former) colleague Dave Brat was elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility. Brat seems likely to join the Tea Party caucus, and that wing of the GOP will likely feel emboldened by the big GOP win this year. That doesn't seem like a great environment to push for more spending, even in a traditionally Republican-supported area like the defense budget.

Forbes also noted that the loss of Eric Cantor, plus the retirements of Frank Wolf and Jim Moran, really challenges the Virginia delegation's ability to push the state's interests in Washington. Now that he's one of the longer-tenured members of that delegation, Forbes has his work cut out for him.

It remains to be seen how internal Republican dynamics will play out. But next year might bring more infighting between the Tea Party/Brat wing and Republican "establishment" types like Forbes.

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.

VA7 debate intrigue continues; Brat rallies

Some more developments in the Virginia 7th Congressional race:

  • Jack Trammell and especially James Carr have been complaining that Dave Brat is ducking their calls for more debates. But Brat has now shown that he will at least appear in public with both candidates: he has agreed to attend a Goochland Chamber of Commerce forum. It's not quite a debate -- the candidates will answer questions pre-screened by the debate organizers, and supposedly not really address each other -- but it's at least a public event.  (The candidates have done a couple of private forum-like events, and of course Brat and Trammell will debate at Randolph-Macon in October, with Carr not invited.)
  • Meanwhile, conservative luminaries descend on Hanover County this weekend for a Dave Brat rally. All the campaigns in this race are run by political newbies -- and show it -- but Brat still has been cleverly using conservative networks and targeted media to win over his base. And this rally is a perfect distillation of that strategy. Held at the family home of former Delegate Frank Hargrove, the rally features Laura Ingraham and Doc Thompson. Ingraham and especially Thompson are radio personalities, not well-known to anyone but the suburban and rural conservatives who make up Brat's base in the district. But the rally also features an actual U.S. Senator in Alabama's Jeff Sessions, a strong sign of support from a hardline GOP conservative.

    Trammell has had quiet visits at fundraisers from VA Dems like Tim Kaine and Donald McEachin, and has a brief statement on his website from Mark Warner. But there's been no big public show of support like this rally.
  • One place where Trammell is clearly the victor: Facebook. Jack's page has 17,000 likes to Dave's 12,000. Still, it's hard to see much in that number; it could reflect likes from around the country, as the race has drawn national attention. Even if most of the likes are from the district, it may just reflect demographics. Although maybe less so than in past years, younger voters skew Democratic.  And while more and more people of all ages are going online, older voters tend to be less active on the internet. So Trammell's Facebook lead could just reflect the fact that many Brat supporters are older Republicans. (Although my 75-year-old Dad is the biggest Facebook user I know; go figure.)

VA7 Debate: R-MC 1, Democracy 0

Randolph-Macon College, the liberal arts college where I work, is really a wonderful place. But sometimes we get it wrong.

The College just announced a debate between their faculty members/Congressional candidates. Dave Brat and Jack Trammell will meet on campus on October 28 for a one-hour exchange. Good news for those who want to see these two hash out their differences, as well as those who like great storylines and political theater. (Remember the breathless reports after the primary? "Two college professors face off - and they're from the same college!")

But the debate is bad news for one candidate: Libertarian James Carr. In a press release that was also posted on his Facebook page, Carr noted that the "College chooses to support its staff over principles of open-mindedness."

That's not exactly true, but the College is certainly looking out for its own interests. The attention brought by the election has been understandably welcomed by a small college with a largely regional profile. Carr has no place in the narrative that pits professor against professor and raises the local and national profile of the institution.

In his press release, Carr claims that Trammell asked that he be included, but that Brat nixed it. Certainly conventional wisdom suggests that the Republican candidate has more to lose from libertarian challengers in elections (although the evidence for this is mixed at best). Brat, the clear frontrunner in this race, has little to gain from debating Carr.

In fact, Brat has little to gain even from debating Trammell; he's been generally avoiding mainstream media and communicating directly with his district through social media, conservative talk radio, and local events. I have no inside info here, but my guess is that institutional loyalty played a part in making the debate happen. The truth is that the College needs Brat much more than he needs this debate. So if Brat doesn't want Carr, Carr is out.

Carr notes that the College pointed to longstanding "best practices" for inclusion in debates, which include a minimum $50k in campaign contributions. The effect, says Carr, is "further entrenching money as key to political success." As I've noted before, this is just one of many ways that the two main political parties prevent challengers from even getting a whiff of a fair shake in the electoral process.

So now my college is implicated in this cartel-like behavior. Carr asks:

How can a college claim ‘The Randolph-Macon College academic program is grounded in the liberal arts traditions of inquiry, critical analysis, and the synthesis of ideas across multiple disciplines’ yet restrict the views presented to it students in such a clearly biased way?

I don't have an answer. It's a bad call - Carr should be in the debate.