Thursday, November 17, 2011

Things we learned from last week's election

It's so much easier to wax profound over an election once it's over.

For honesty's sake, I think I'm on record at various places online predicting that the Republicans would take control of the Senate, 21-19, that Del. Robin Abbott would win a squeaker in the 93rd House District and that Sen. John Miller would beat Republican Mickey Chohany in the 1st District -- and unlike some other people in my newsroom, I expected that 1st District race to be close.

It was and Miller won. Abbott lost a squeaker to Republican Mike Watson instead of winning one. In a higher turn out year, like a gubernatorial election, she probably would have won. And Republicans only forged a tie in the Senate at 20-20, although they are going to use Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote to act like they are in the majority. More on that later.

So what did we learn from the 2011 election?

A few things:

1. It's possible to hold an election where nobody wins.
Obviously the Democrats didn't win, they're down to 32 seats in the House of Delegates and lost the majority in the Senate, their last hold on power at the state level. But you can' t really say the Republicans won. They didn't capture a majority in the Senate, although they were widely expected to. In the weeks leading up to the election I heard and read Republicans predicting that they'd take 25 or 26 seats. There was a Tea Party group set up called "Beyond 21." But they didn't even get to 21.  In fact, of the 24 Senate races contested between the two parties (some of those contests being token opposition), Democrats won 16 and Republicans won only 8. Republicans were able to forge a tie in the Senate because they knocked off two incumbents, without any of their own incumbents being threatened, and because they won two open seats. But it's hard to say they won in the Senate when they lost 2/3 of the contested races.

2. Democrats in the House are in big trouble. For a long time.
While Democrats held their own or better in the Senate, the House races, which got far less attention, were a debacle. They're left with 32 seats. In contested House races, Republicans won 21-6-1 (Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, the longest serving member of the House in history beat both a Democrat and a Republican to win re-election).  It's scandalous that only 28 out of 100 House seats were contested between the parties and, again, some of those were token challenges. Democrats in the House suffered from a huge failure by the leadership, amplified by the Republican redistricting plan. They failed in recruitment so badly that no Republican incumbent member of the House was seriously challenged for re-election. Former House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong paid the prices for the "defense only" strategy. He lost. So did the other two targeted Democratic incumbents, Abbott and Del. Bill Barlow (D-64th). You can't win playing defense. It allowed the Republicans to take money they would otherwise have had to spend on incumbents and use it to win challenge and open seats. In the normal course of events, because Virginia is not a 68% Republican state, you'd expect the Democrats to start winning those seats back at the rate of 2-4 per election cycle. Problem is, that still leaves them in the minority when the next redistricting comes around and Republicans get to draw them back to square one. The best chance for a majority in the House Democrats have for the next 30 years is a Democratic landslide for governor. That hasn't happened in more than 25 years. After 30 years, demographic trends might give Democrats the majority back despite themselves.

3. 2011 was not 2010, so there's no reason to suppose that 2012 will be.
Republicans were predicting bigger gains than they got because they were fighting the last war. They were expecting the kind of Tea Party-fueled wave election that swept Republicans back into power in the House of Representatives last year. It didn't happen. One reason may have been that the Republicans in Congress have managed to damage the brand. While 2010's results were largely blamed on the unpopularity of President Barack Obama, the Republican House of Representatives is currently less popular than Obama. That suggests that Tea Party wave may have lost its momentum. So does current polling for the U.S. Senate race in Virginia in 2012, which shows former Gov. Tim Kaine, one of the president's staunchest allies, tied with former governor and Senator George Allen.

4. General Assembly elections are essentially local elections. They can't really be nationalized.
Despite attempts by Republicans to run on everything from cap and trade to Obamacare, General Assembly elections are decided by local issues. General Assembly members, unlike members of Congress, live in their districts. They spend most of their time in their home communities. Their constituents know them. It's hard to sell that electorate canned national negative advertising.

5. Rural Democrats are on extinction watch.
With the loss of Armstrong and Barlow in the House and Sen. Edd Houck and Sen. Roscoe Reynolds in the Senate, we can almost write an end to the story of Virginia's rural Democrats, who once controlled the levers of power in the state. At this point, with the exception of two Senate seats and one House seat, if it's rural, the Republicans own it. That's both good news and bad news for both parties. While obviously the Democrats would like to have more seats and the Republicans are happy to have the rural seats, the plain truth of the matter is that whoever holds those seats there will be fewer of them 30 years from now then there are today. Unless Virginia's demographic trends for the past 30 years turn completely around, the state will continue to become more urbanized and more diverse. Rural Virginia will continue to lose population to Northern Virginia and the rest of the Urban Crescent. That doesn't bode well for Republicans long term, unless they can find a way to reach out to minorities, urban dwellers and "come heres," groups they don't do well with now.

6. In politics it's never about principle, it's about whose ox is getting gored.
After failing to win a majority in the Senate, the first thing the Republicans did was claim that Bolling's vote actually gave them one. There's nothing wrong with that except that the last time the Senate was divided 20-20, they argued exactly the opposite. At that time the lieutenant governor was a Democrat, Don Beyer. Democrats proposed to do just what Republicans are going to do in January, use Beyer's tie-breaking vote to organize the Senate with themselves as a majority. The Republicans argued that they couldn't do that, because Beyer was not a "member elected to the Senate" and thus couldn't vote on organizational matters. They argued long and hard on the issue. I think they may even have come up with an attorney general's opinion that Beyer couldn't vote. The Democrats countered with a report on the issue by A.E. Dick Howard, the UVa professor who wrote the most recent version of the Virginia's Constitution saying that Beyer could vote. Ironically, when I asked new Senate "Majority Leader" Tommy Norment last week how he justified arguing that Bolling could vote, he cited that report from Howard.  I think Republicans probably are right that Bolling can vote to break the ties. I just wish they'd have the intellectual honesty to admit they were wrong in 1996.

7. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than to be good.
Given the abysmal failure of leadership and recruiting by the Democrats, it's amazing that they managed to break even in the Senate. The leadership needs to be shaken up from party chair Brian Moran to Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw. To go into an important legislative election posing no challenge to any of the oppositions' incumbents is insane. Managing to get out of it with a tie is the equivalent of drawing to an inside straight and making it. While the Democrats are looking for new leaders, maybe they should think about getting a message too. It's something they haven't had for the last 25 years. The only unified theme that Virginia Democrats have had in that time is "We're not Republicans." There are years when that's enough. But most years it isn't. Virginia Republicans have a message. And it's simple. It's "We will not raise your taxes, no matter what." You can argue that that message doesn't always apply to the state's circumstances. You'd be right. You can argue that, at it's worst, that message panders to people's selfishness and their worst instincts. It can. But it's a message. There's an old saying in politics that "You can't beat something with nothing." Virginia Democrats need to stop testing the truth of that saying and find some principles they can agree on.

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