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Building Rational Expectations for Virginia Democrats

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(Thought provoking, very well informed, thanks for this diary! – promoted by lowkell)

Earlier today, Lowell brought to our attention the enthusiasm gap between Virginia Democrats and our Republican colleagues as we close out 2011 and look ahead to 2012 and 2013. Republican candidates are coming out of the Tea Party woodwork to prepare for statewide runs in 2013, while the Democratic side is silent. I joined the comments to promote discussion of several observations I have on the matter, but I wanted to pull them all together in a diary to get more discussion and throw out some more controversial thoughts.

First, 800 pound gorilla in the room is the Junior Senator from Virginia, soon to be Senior Senator, and former “His Excellency” Mark Warner.

There is a push in the party to get Warner to return to Richmond in 2013 as the only way to reverse the party’s fortunes after setbacks in 2009 and 2011. You can see my comment on this possibility here. For this diary I’ll just say that until we get a clear statement from Warner one way or another I wouldn’t count on the Democratic lead up to 2013 to come alive with announcements.

Next, to borrow from Lowell, “why would any sane Democrat WANT to be governor of Virginia?”  

The best case scenario for any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2013 would be to win (duh) and have a strong Lt. Governor candidate who also wins and helps secure control of a 20-20 State Senate (without risking any special elections that could cost the party). Picking up control of the House of Delegates isn’t a best case scenario, it’s utopian! Even the realistic best case scenario forces the next Democratic Governor to deal with a Republican House of Delegates, much like Time Kaine during his last two years.

If the Democratic candidate for Governor wins in 2013 he or she will spend most of the time blocking bad Republican proposals, not building strong Democratic legislative victories. That’s just a rational expectation, one that argues that the important issue in 2013 is less about finding the most bold forward-thinking champion and more about finding the candidate who will be most serious about party building in the long term.

The announcement of former Congressman Perriello that he will be working at CAP for at least the next year, if not more, tends to indicate that we won’t have much of a choice going into 2013 about finding the most bold forward-thinking champion. So let’s now dwell on that point.

To borrow heavily from my comments (See here and here), forward-thinking Democrats should be more concerned about finding a strong champion for Lt. Governor so that we have the best candidate available in 2017 and someone who can spend at least two years at the power table in Richmond brokering deals and ensuring the Commonwealth doesn’t entirely go off the rails.

The biggest challenge to Virginia Democrats, one I’ve conveniently neglected in my comments, is the strong challenge to my rosy assumptions (hopes?) that our party can make steady gains throughout the next decade in the House of Delegates.

In 2001, the first post-Republican gerrymandering election in Virginia, only one Republican incumbent was defeated by a Democrat, when Jack Rust was defeated by Chap Petersen. We lost scores of other seats that year because of gerrymandering. Not a good year.

Two years later, in 2003, not a single incumbent Republican State Senator was defeated (we lost one seat with Byrne’s retirement), and only a single incumbent Republican Delegate was defeated (Tom Bolvin defeated by Mark Sickles). We gained three additional open seats and lost another seat due to the retirement of an incumbent.

In 2005, with Tim Kaine winning, we again defeated only one incumbent Republican Delegate (Dick Black defeated by David Poisson). We netted four seats, but this was again due to open seats. And then there was Waddell’s race, which I view as a very unusual local situation.

In 2007, when we finally won the State Senate, we knocked off three Republican State Senators and picked up a fourth seat because the Republican primary vote was crazy enough to reject Marty Williams. In the House of Delegates we defeated one incumbent Republican Delegate and picked up three open seats. And Waddell lost.

I don’t even need to bring up 2009 and 2011 . . .

The challenge for Virginia Democrats is defeating Republican incumbents, instead of just winning open seats. Our best year was 2007 with the defeat of three incumbent State Senators. We’ve never managed to defeat more than one incumbent Republican Delegate a year in the last decade!

We did well winning open seats over the last decade, but the Virginia House Democrats need to step up their game if we want to have a hope of becoming relevant by the end of the decade. No one would be surprised by that verdict, I know many in Richmond already feel the same way and are looking for ways to improve their game in the future.

I’ll end with these, more far fetched, observations.

Winning in 2013 may be difficult, but I believe that a strong performance by Obama and Kaine next year will show Virginia Democrats that we can chart a way back to statewide victory. In both 2001 and 2005 we knocked off incumbent Republican delegates by combining strong Gubernatorial performance in the district with aggressive candidates. I believe there are a number of Delegate districts where Obama performed well in 2008, will do well well in 2012, are trending Democratic and will favor us in 2013, but are arguably not on the radar of the state party right now. It’s important for the netroots to start now in playing a role in recruiting strong forward-thinking Democratic challengers in these sorts of districts.

Virginia Democrats are already talking about targeting the 12th (Blacksburg), 87th (where Kondratick only narrowly lost), and 93rd (Williamsburg). If we were only able to pick up three seats in 2013 I think that would still be a good year, but I think if we work now to expand the playing field it will help the party pick up more seats. Even though we’ve only knocked off only one incumbent and picked up around three open seats a cycle, we have also seriously contested a handful of other races to ensure the Republicans aren’t able to focus all of their resources in just a few seats.

In order to generate further controversy and discussion, I’m going to throw out some names that I’d like to see run in 2013. Please join the list. Consider it a Dream Team.

Bobby Scott.

Phil Forgit.

Aneesh Chopra.

Your choice here!