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.

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.