Recently the BlueVa gang bemoaned the low interest in the upcoming statehouse elections, noting the likelihood in a low turnout election that the more dedicated party typically wins. It’s as if he is predicting Democratic disappointment come election day.
How can this be? As recently as two years ago the Democrats held the Governor’s mansion, both US Senate seats, a majority of the Congressional delegation, and a majority in the Virginia Senate. The GOP was on the skids…Obama would rule with a benevolent hand and knowing smile…all was wonderful in Liberal Land.
Only it didn’t quite turn out so nicely. Today the GOP holds all three Virginia statewide offices, a reinforced majority in the House of Delegates, and a majority of the Congressional delegation. The Virginia senators are both Democrats, but Senator Webb has chosen to eschew reelection and Senator Warner the Lesser has shown every sign of following the Chuck Robb Senate path…bright prospects on entrance, followed by a long, slow slide to irrelevance. The Virginia Senate? The GOP is coming on strong even in a chamber reapportioned by the Democrats to favor the Democrats.
How? How could all this happen?
I have some thoughts on the matter. Pull up a chair and sit a spell…
Some might blame it on the highly ineffective presidency of Barack Obama. Others on the economy. But there is more than that…and much closer to home.
In fact, the Democratic malaise in Virginia can be traced back to two dates. The first important for its duplicity, the second for pulling the curtain back on DPVA intentions.
Date 1: The Warner Deception-2005
Mark Warner wanted a tax increase. He got it by swearing it was desperately needed to keep the state AAA bond rating. A variety of GOP delegates up and down the ideological spectrum, from Preston Bryant at the moderate end of the spectrum to Harry Parrish at the conservative end, listened to him. Others, like Jim Dillard, allegedly asked and got more for their vote…but more about that later.
Based on his representation and their belief that the Governor of Virginia would not deceive them, they voted for the tax increase.
Imagine their surprise when it was revealed that the Commonwealth would have run a surplus even without the tax increase. Imagine their further surprise when it was discovered that the Governors staff had overlooked $137 million in funds that were not factored into their analysis.
There were repercussions. It caused a goodly number of moderate GOP delegates to leave the House. Some retired (Dillard), some were given government jobs (Bryant). The fight in the session and in the following primary took a toll on Harry Parrish, who died just after the close of the 2006 General Assembly session.
The result of the Warner Deception? For Warner, national applause for “working across party lines”. It also helped yield a more conservative and perhaps more partisan GOP House of Delegates contingent, and one far more wary of working with a Democratic governor-once burned, twice shy.
Date 2: An Unconstitutional Transportation Plan and a Failure to Lead-2007
Short story-GOP overcomes internal division to pass transportation plan in 2007. Democrats afraid to be left at station jump aboard, giving it bi-partisan support. Governor signs bill into law. Plan later found unconstitutional.
That is the short and brutal version-but the overall affect for the Democrats has been longer and beyond brutal.
The GOP in Richmond threatened to rupture along anti-tax lines. The Democrats chose to hide between the tax plans championed by John Chichester and Russ Potts. In fact, their entire strategy seemed to be allow the GOP to smash themselves on the rocks of public opinion and slide in and pick up the pieces and power left behind. Remember, in 2007 the Democrats had just won a US Senate seat and almost picked off the Va-2 seat, Tim Kaine is governor, and a clear democratic tide is sweeping the country. Yet there was no effort to try to pass a “Democratic” plan in the statehouse, and Governor Kaine did not offer a Democratic vision of where they would lead the state.
Typically the way a party takes back power is to offer its ideas, force recorded legislative votes, then go the public with proof of the opposition to their program, and build a record to show where it will lead the county, state, country, etc. Not in Virginia-the Democrats just hoped the GOP would crash upon the Scylla of the no tax increase House of Delegates and the Charybdis of Chichester’s tax plans.
Unfortunately, the GOP came up with a plan. Was it a good plan? Not really…but it was a plan that relied on penalty and user fees instead of some type of flat out tax increase, and it passed the HOD with bipartisan support. Governor Kaine was so shocked he held a statewide listening tour before signing off on it in the desperate hope of finding some reason to veto it. Folks like Dave Marsden, who trashed the GOP over funding in articles in the Connection newspapers, came out voting for the plan and justified his vote by saying he would vote in favor of any plan that would gin up more transportation funding.
Alas, Governor Kaine, perfectly happy to not lead, found no rationalization or support to veto the bill, and he signed it into law.
This bipartisan support, and the governor signing, gave the GOP coverage on the funding front. Moreover, without any real efforts over the previous four years to create a distinct Virginia Democrat brand/identity/platform, there was no way to wage the General Assembly campaign in 2007 with a statewide theme. Instead, it became a series of local election fights.
The Democrats did take the Senate in 2007-but by the barest of majorities of 21-19. However, it was-as Wellington said of Waterloo- a “Damned close thing”. Cuccinelli won by 100 votes, Jill Holtzman Vogel won in Winchester but ran behind much of the night [margin of victory-659 votes out of 51,500 cast] ; Richard Stuart defeated Democrat Al Pollard to win the seat of the retiring John Chichester, but the margin was 600 votes out of 42,500 cast, and Ralph Smith won his Roanoke Valley seat by 741 votes out of 41,500 cast. A shift of 2500 votes over these four races and the margin swells to 25-15.
Would a unified state theme of GOP inability and failure have brought in more votes? Undoubtedly.
This failure to create a record became the gift that keeps on giving. Barack Obama wins the White House in 2008, basking in thoughts of a new progressive electoral majority. In 2009 the Virginia Democracy loses the all three statewide races and the GOP gains 6 seats in the House of Delegates. Apparently the “Bubble Popularity” (as Senator Thomas Benton once said) can be easily exploded by the absence of a party actually standing for something, as opposed to standing simply for opposing the other guys.
The ground work laid by the duplicity of one Democratic governor, the failure to lead by another, and a legislative unwillingness to fight has led to a Democrat Party in Virginia that is lacking in vision or even foundation principles it will fight over. The GOP is just as lacking in vision, but they have their tax anathema to keep them together.
With all this, is is any wonder that the Democrats are unable to muster enthusiasm? Nothing to excite the faithful, nothing to fire up the troops? Not being perceived as standing for anything? Multiply that with the traditional down cycle in interest in the General Assembly/Constitutional office election year in Virginia’s four year cycle, and what else can be expected? Shoot, that’s all before we look at the more personal disappointment of the Democrats in their statewide winners…but that’s another story…
…which will be coming soon!