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.

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.