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.

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.

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.