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.)

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.

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.

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.