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.

Cantor's real lesson: stay close to home

Eric Cantor's surprise loss to Dave Brat in the VA 7th primary held a number of lessons for politicos and observers. But one of the key ones for his fellow members of the GOP was supposedly this: stay the hell away from immigration reform, and for god's sake don't mention the A-word. Politico, among many others, noted immediately after Brat's victory that immigration reform was dead. And lo and behold, recent bills to deal with the border crisis have now stalled in both Houses, with one Senator specifically warning his colleagues to thwart the President's will on this or face Cantor's fate.

The claims about immigration were probably overstated, as some even noted at the time. (Including my R-MC colleague Lauren Bell, who has the tweets to prove it.) Still, even if you grant that immigration reform had some potency in Cantor's loss, this was a national problem that his fellow federal officials might take to heart.

Local politicians heard another lesson loud and clear: pay attention to your district. Politico's excellent primary post-mortem noted how Cantor was focused on Washington to the detriment of his actual constituents:

Meanwhile, Cantor’s ambitions increasingly kept him in Washington and away from the district, associates said. The 51-year-old Republican was heir apparent to Boehner — and had a travel schedule and entourage to match — but those trappings of power backfired.

Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins, a Cantor constituent who has known him for years, said Cantor “just wasn’t in the district as much as he used to be. Dave Brat was there.”

The word is that VA state representatives also saw this as a key factor in Cantor's loss, and they do not want to suffer the same fate.

VA residents shouldn't be surprised if they find an increase in the number of mailings they get from their delegates, for example, or see their State Senator popping up more often at local events. A number of Delegate offices that would normally be quiet this summer have instead been buzzing with activity, as staffers and interns fire off fundraising letters, thank-you's, and acknowledgements or helping their boss get to town picnics or parades.

Thanks to America's district-based voting, the old saw about all politics being local is as true as ever. Cantor's loss apparently has been a forceful reminder for VA state reps.

Jack Trammell's Re-Launch

There's a nice profile of Jack Trammell in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch (for out-of-towners, the Paper of Record here in RVA). Two things to note:

  • The Trammell campaign has to be very happy with the tone of the article. While the authors acknowledge the demographic mountain he's got to climb in the district, it does note the opportunity a fellow neophyte as an opponent presents. More importantly, Jack airs out some policy positions. Knowing Jack a little, I know he's sincere about wanting this campaign to be about an exchange of ideas. Hopefully Dave will follow suit, but it will be interesting to see how much he believes in his frontrunner status. (It would be ironic if Dave avoided debate, considering how much he criticized Cantor for ducking him.)
  • Jack's cleaned himself up, with a shave and a haircut! He's making the rest of us shaggy academics look bad.