Brandon Bell, Dick Saslaw, $200K, and the Battle for 21 Dems

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    by Paul Goldman

    Like it or not, there is only one overriding issue in the 2011 Virginia elections: will the Democrats maintain enough votes to organize the Senate in such a way as to maximize their ability to prevent some very bad ideas from passing the General Assembly?

    Other than that, there are no major substantive issues dominating either the campaigns or the news coverage. The House Majority has been gerrymandered into certainty for a decade unless something beyond the wildest magnitudes of statistical deviation occur. Perhaps Senate Democrats should have tried a more unified substantive strategy. But that horse is out of the barn.

    It’s raw power now, including those who don’t want to see the Vice Presidential hopes of Robert McDonnell get any further boost. If the GOP takes the Senate, then the Governor’s national star goes higher, thus he is more likely to be on the GOP national ticket.

    McDonnell running statewide next year is not good for Tim Kaine, nor for Mark Warner in 2014. So one would think Democrats apathetic about voting next week might want to reconsider. One suspects Republicans have figured out the chess board.

    Which brings us to the decision by Senate Democrats to give $200k to former-Republican-turned-independent, 19th district candidate Brandon Bell. In the end, Majority Leader Dick Saslaw made a practical decision on the $200K, period.  

    Also note: that $200k in reality isn’t $200K in campaign battle terms. Why? Because Saslaw’s giving the money will make the GOP give more to Mr. Smith than would otherwise have been the case. Assume Republicans toss in another $100K to help Ralph Smith: that’s $100K not being spent against Democratic candidates in the rest of the state.

    Moreover, it is logical to assume that Dick Saslaw may have raised money otherwise not available to him from interests who wanted to help Bell but thought it made sense not to give to him directly.

    Finally, even if you use the $200K number, this is not large in the context of all the money being spent in these General Assembly campaigns.

    True, come Wednesday morning, it could be an easy target for angry Democrats. Still, I think Saslaw gave Bell the money for a good reason: he thinks Democrats might need that extra vote after all. One suspects Saslaw also promised Bell a large contribution for making the race. So, there is also an element of keeping the party’s word here.

    The real question is thus not the $200K, but the manner of giving it. Specifically, does it risk a $200K backlash in terms of motivating Republicans (there is nothing like a turncoat to get the Tea Party types juiced up big time)?

    It is true that giving the money in this fashion might not have been optimal – including sending the message that Bell is “our guy” – and that there might have been other, better ways to do this.  But that will have to wait for a post-mortem: the cash has been delivered and everyone who figures to vote will have heard about it by election day.

    Thus, Dick Saslaw has achieved his goals here: he feels Bell has a decent shot at winning; while getting to 21 seats might be tougher on election night than it had earlier appeared. So, for $200K, it was net-net the smart game theory call.

    Of course, one can legitimately question why Democrats have got themselves into a situation where they might need Mr. Bell to save their organizing majority in the first place. But that is a different discussion altogether.

    In the meantime, Saslaw says Bell’s election won’t decide who runs the Senate. Let’s hope that’s true, since Bell’s decision to take $200k from the Democrats is surely causing consternation among Republicans who were supporting him as an Independent Republican, not as a guy who made a backroom deal with the Democrats. Which is why, although Saslaw made the right call on a macro level, there are questions about whether the timing and optics are right in terms of the local politics. The voters get to answer that next week.  

    • TXIconoclast

      I remember reading several posts on here about the terrible job of recruitment in this year’s legislative elections.

      I wonder if the Saslaw-Bell issue would be taken in a different light by some if more Republicans had been kept busy instead of being given the gift of 11 Senate seats without a challenge.  They need to get to 21 (or only 20) and they’re over 50% of the way there.

      I’m thinking if more Republicans were challenged the Saslaw-Bell issue would be more positive because it would be one more seat keeping Republicans busy and limiting the money they spent on close races.

    • Paul, my reaction to the size of the donation was that Saslaw had to go big or not go at all. If Bell got a small amount, it wouldn’t be enough to be worth attacks claiming he’s a Dem in disguise. Is that your read?