Attacks start in VA Senate 10 race

Political ads are all about defining the candidate in the public eye (and in the media). Negative ads are no different: it's just the candidate is trying to define his or her opponent.

The 10th Senate race is on my mind lately, because it's showing up in my mailbox. Recent mailers from both campaigns suggest the line of attack each candidate will take when bashing the other. Both Democrat Dan Gecker and Glen Sturtevant sent mailers last week attacking their opponent; both were, unsurprisingly, disingenuous.

First, Gecker sent out a mailer promoting his work on education, including his vote on last year's Chesterfield County budget which included funding for additional teachers and, supposedly, reducing class sizes. The ad also makes this claim, though: "Glen Sturtevant is the only school board member who voted against a budget providing funds to reduce class sizes."

The claim is footnoted (as most claims in political ads are now, thankfully) by a May 2015 Richmond Times-Dispatch article. But go to the actual article, and you find that Sturtevant did vote against the budget - for other reasons entirely. The RTD reports:

The lone vote of dissent on the budget came from Glen Sturtevant of the 1st District. Sturtevant favored giving teachers a 2 percent raise and opposed adding professional development days before improving the quality of professional development the school system offers. He said he thinks suburban counties do a better job of finding ways to pay their teachers.

“I thought it important that we find ways to remain competitive,” Sturtevant said.

This may be wrong-headed, but class sizes have nothing to do with it.

Sturtevant's own attack has a stronger leg to stand on. His ad from last week breathlessly claims that Gecker "voted for a property tax increase costing homeowners $3,000,000 more a year." And, unfortunately for Gecker, this is true.

Again, context matters, though. Gecker resisted another board member's call for a 2-3 cent increase and advocated other budget cuts. Sturtevant claims that Gecker "repeatedly advocated for higher tax rates," but there are significant pressures on local government that might make that a sane choice.

In the end, both attacks play into prevailing narratives; the Democrat loves taxes and the Republican hates education. Still, Sturtevant's claims may hurt Gecker more than the reverse. Even back during the Democratic primary, Gecker's vote for a tax increase (in that very 2004 budget he touted in his own ad) was seen as problematic for his campaign. A good rule of thumb in politics is to never be on the "yes" end of a tax increase - particularly close to an election year. We'll see how hard Sturtevant hits this point in the weeks to come.

Cycle continues for third party candidates

It's been a bad week for Carl Loser, the Libertarian candidate for State Senate in the 10th. Last Friday the Times-Dispatch reported that Loser had threatened his campaign manager's ex-wife after she threatened to alert the media about missing child support payments from her ex-husband. According to the article, Loser responded by writing that “I will personally take action to ensure you no longer have a home, and Corey will have custody of your daughter...You have my word.” Nice guy. Loser apologized, of course, but the damage has been done.

But the damage was already done when he announced his candidacy. His name didn't help, of course -- see this recent Wonkette interview for a sample -- but his status as the Libertarian outsider meant that he never had a chance.

I've written before about how the two major parties rig election rules to make it much harder for smaller parties and non-establishment candidates to get a foothold. And, of course, the structure of our elections in general encourage the party duopoly thanks to winner-take-all elections. (See here if you're feeling student-y and want to learn more about how this works.)

But another big obstacle to third party success is that a serious party needs serious candidates. And the LPVA has had trouble finding them. Robert Sarvis made a good run at the Senate last year, but even he only garnered 50,000 votes. Most of the candidates the LPVA trots out resemble the 24-year-old political neophyte Loser. Of course,  if the media and voters won't take your chances seriously, it's very unlikely the party will find such figures in the future.

This is a shame, because there's a real opportunity for libertarians right now, both nationally and in Virginia. Support for marriage equality grows while trust in government remains low. It has long been argued that libertarians could marry liberal support for personal freedom with conservative support for economic freedom. But they need more serious candidates to do that.

No matter how you feel about libertarian ideology -- and it has serious problems -- more voices are better than fewer if you like democratic pluralism. But until third parties can overcome this cycle of bad candidates leading to more bad candidates, it's unlikely to change.

(In the meantime, you can enjoy this song.)