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.

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.