Why Virginia Is The State To Watch In 2013

I almost always take the position that odd-year state races say little or nothing about what will happen in national elections a year or two away. Generally, these elections are very localized, and the fact that a particular party may win a particular state in an odd year does not necessarily indicate a national trend. To wit: Democratic gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey in 2001 were followed by Republican victories in the 2002 Congressional elections.

But I would hedge my normal statement by inviting readers to take a long, close look at what happens in Virginia next month. As astute observers of the political scene may know, Virginia has become, in recent years, a bellwether in presidential elections. In both 2008 and 2012, Virginia came the closest of any state to the overall national margin; in fact, the margin of victory in Virginia for President Barack Obama in 2012 was only 0.02 percentage points higher than his national margin. (Virginia had been 0.98 percentage points more Republican than the national margin in 2008, also the closest correlation between any state and the overall margin).

Now, keep in mind the fact that I’m not talking about the gubernatorial race or the other down-ballot statewide races. Barring some sort of colossal screw-up over the next few weeks, Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, respectively, are shoo-ins to win the governor’s race and the lieutenant governor’s race. Both have consistently led in virtually all polls conducted since the spring. Their victories would be all but certain regardless of whether the national Republican Party was in the process of torching its brand in Washington these days. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is too far right on social issues to appeal to the suburban electorate in this demographically diverse swing state, and the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, has made such crazy pronouncements as to make Cuccinelli look liberal by comparison. And while there have been few polls in the attorney general’s race between Mark Herring (D) and Mark Obenshain (R), Herring does appear to have a slight lead, and he could give the Democrats a clean sweep of the statewide races.

The results of those three races will probably say much less about the prospects of Virginia Republicans than they will say about what happens when your party holds a convention rather than a primary—which, of course, draws only the truest of the true believers—and ends up nominating a bunch of candidates who are too extreme to pass the smell test. And the results of the statewide races probably say nothing at all of what may be coming in 2014 or 2016 on a national level.

But what I would suggest watching very closely is what happens in the Virginia House of Delegates. Currently, Republicans have a spectacularly outsized 65-32 majority (as compared to a 20-20 split in the state Senate, which is not up for election this year). There are two vacant seats, both of which had been held by Republicans, and one independent.

I am not going to suggest that Democrats might take control of the House of Delegates this year. That’s not happening, and any political analyst who would predict that result should have his/her head examined. Democrats would have to pick up 18 seats, and while that kind of swing may happen in Minnesota or Maine, it is unheard of in Virginia. It took Republicans two cycles to go from a 53-45 majority to their current 65-32 advantage, and the 2009 and 2011 elections took place in a period when the Tea Party movement was flying high.

But there are opportunities for Democrats to eat into the Republican edge. The question here is: how much?

Geoffrey Skelley, one of the very talented political analysts at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, did a comprehensive analysis of this year’s Virginia legislative elections on August 8th. By his estimate, it may be possible for Democrats to pick up six or seven seats, which would cut the GOP advantage to something around 60-40. But there are 12 legislative seats currently held by Republicans in districts that went for the president in last year’s elections, and two more where Obama barely lost.

For Democrats to pick up as many as six or seven seats could probably be explained away as a simple matter of political gravity. It is very difficult to see how Republicans could win any more than 67 of 100 House seats in Virginia, even taking into account issues of gerrymandering and inefficient distribution of Democrats. In short, the Republicans have maxed out in the House of Delegates; there’s really only one direction they can go, and it isn’t a good one from their point of view. Democratic pickups this year are to be expected, and would likely be expected regardless of the national environment.

But if Democrats can somehow win more than six or seven seats, perhaps taking upwards of 10 or 11 of the 14 GOP-held districts where Obama won or barely lost in 2012, that would be harder to explain away as mere gravity. It would almost surely indicate an electorate that has turned against Republicans in a major way, in a state that recently has more closely mirrored the national electorate than any other. That would be significant, and that’s why the Virginia House of Delegates is what you should be watching on the night of November 5th.

All Blame Is Not Created Equal

Not surprisingly, I am seeing a number of people, on Facebook and other message boards, offering the opinion that the current federal government shutdown is equally the fault of Republicans and Democrats. I am sure it seems like a reasonable thing to say, and it provides the effect of making the person who says it look moderate and evenhanded.
There is only one problem: it just isn’t true.
I am sure there is very little need for me to pause here and note, in the interest of fairness, that I am a Democrat. Most people who know me understand that I generally support what the Democratic Party supports, and I generally oppose what the Republican Party supports. I am not going to take the time here to get into all the reasons for my support of a liberal political philosophy, which is another discussion for another time. But to be fair, I feel it important to note up front that I do have a very strong political bias, so that those of you reading this post can make your own judgment as to my objectivity.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I am going to do my absolute best to present the facts of the case, and I am going to try to leave my own personal bias out of it as much as I can.
The Republicans, as you probably know, have a majority of seats in the United States House of Representatives, while the Democrats control a majority of the United States Senate and the presidency. We have come up to a couple of deadlines.
One deadline, which passed October 1st, was the deadline for Congress to pass a law that would continue funding the federal government. The failure of Congress to do so, due to the inability of the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate to agree on passing the same bill, is why most federal functions have shut down at this time.
Another deadline, which is approaching on October 17, is the date by which Congress must raise the nation’s debt ceiling. I’m going to take a moment here to explain what that means. The debt ceiling has to be raised to pay for the bills our country already owes. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the country will have to begin defaulting on the bills it has already incurred but has not yet paid. That is expected, by most financial experts, to have extremely negative effects on the financial markets and very possibly create another economic recession or depression.
To go back to the first deadline, which passed days ago, the reason why the House and Senate failed to agree was because the Republicans who control the House refused to pass any bill that did not defund or delay the new health care law, passed in 2010, which the Republicans began calling “Obamacare.” That bill, of course, passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama, at a time when Democrats had very large majorities in both the House and the Senate. The law passed with the support of no Republicans in either the House or Senate.
Republicans have strongly opposed the health care law from the beginning and have continued to try to find ways to end it, especially after the 2010 Congressional elections gave them control of the House and more members of the Senate (though Democrats maintained a majority). The Republicans in Congress are now attempting to force the Democrats to go along with either ending “Obamacare” (by taking away its funding) or delaying it, in exchange for Republican consent to continue funding the federal government and pay its bills.
What I have presented, to this point, is strictly factual. Here, I am going to begin to offer my opinion as to why the Republican position is unreasonable and why it is incorrect to blame the Democrats for “refusing to negotiate.”

First of all, I consider the Republican position unreasonable because the Republicans are offering the Democrats only one choice, which they know the Democrats cannot accept: either destroy or delay the program they worked very hard for many years to get
. The Republicans are offering no other alternatives. They are demanding that Democrats give them 100 percent of what they want, or they will shut down the government and possibly default on the nation’s debts, with potential catastrophic effects for the economy of the country and the world. This is not a good-faith attempt to negotiate; it is blackmail.

Secondly, I consider the Republican position unreasonable because the Republicans are trying to block the health care program before the government has even had a chance to implement it and see if it works or not.
Even though the program was enacted in 2010, it has taken time to get it ready, and it won’t be fully functional until 2015. Naturally, Democrats think “Obamacare” is a good idea, or they wouldn’t have enacted it, and Republicans think it is a bad idea. However, there isn’t a single person alive who can tell us, with any certainty, how it is going to work out. Anybody who says he can tell you that it will succeed or fail is either 1) just guessing or 2) lying. Most people would say that it is perfectly reasonable to get rid of the program if it fails. What is not reasonable, in my opinion, is to keep the program from ever being tried out, and that is what Republicans are attempting to do, by trying to force Democrats to defund it or delay it. To defund it would keep it from getting started at all. To delay it for a year inevitably would lead to another Republican demand, a year from now, to delay it again, and another, and another, until such time as a Republican president and Congress are elected and can overturn it. The Republican object is, clearly, to keep it from ever getting off the ground. I do not think this is a reasonable position.

Third, the implementation of “Obamacare” has nothing at all to do with funding government operations or raising the debt ceiling.
Changing the health care program is not required to do either of these things. Republicans are simply holding the country’s fiscal health hostage in order to gain leverage to destroy a program they oppose, before anyone knows whether that program will be good for the country or not.
If Republicans were offering ideas to help improve the health care program, I would consider this a more reasonable approach. But they are only offering a demand to stop it, which I do not consider reasonable.

In short, the Republican Party is the party that is making what I consider unreasonable demands, and I do not think the Democrats are at fault for refusing to give into unreasonable demands.
To do so would only encourage more unreasonable demands in the future.

It should also be noted that Democrats are attaching no demands to their own legislation that would fund the government, and in fact have already compromised on many of the things they would like to do.
The bill the Democratic-controlled Senate passed already had much lower levels of government funding than the Democrats wanted.

And in fact, it is also true that the health care law Democrats enacted in 2010 was much less than what Democrats wanted, or the president campaigned on.
The law did not include a “public option,” which would have created a government-based health insurance option to compete with private carriers; Democrats left this out as a concession to conservatives, even though it was a centerpiece of President Obama’s 2008 campaign and very popular with the people who voted for him. The president took a lot of political heat from his own base by leaving the public option out of the final proposal. So to claim that Democrats are being stubborn about government funding or health care is to ignore the fact that they have already made substantial concessions. It is the Republicans who are not making any concessions.
So when people claim that the Democrats are equally at fault, I believe the facts of the case prove that this is simply not true. The Democrats have made many concessions. It is time now for the Republicans to back away from their unreasonable demands and allow the government to be properly funded.

The Speaker's Dilemma

Even though I am a committed and partisan Democrat, I feel a bit sorry for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Sure, the man has his faults, but generally speaking, he strikes me as a reasonable adult who would love to make some sort of far-reaching deal with President Obama.

The problem for Boehner is that there are, by most estimates, about 40 of his 232 members that are dead set against making any kind of deal with the president or the Democrats. And without those people on board, and needing (currently, due to vacancies) 217 votes to pass anything, the only way he can get a deal done is with Democratic votes. This, of course, sets up a problem for the speaker—retaining his speakership. He can only lose, at this point, 15 Republican votes and still win a majority of the House at the next speakership election. That number will go up a little, or down a little, after the current vacancies are filled and the next general election is held in 2014, but the bottom line is this: if he gets crosswise with the Tea Party element of his caucus by bypassing them and doing a deal with the Democrats, he loses his speakership.

But there’s another problem, which is this: if this shutdown goes on or, even worse, Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in two weeks and the economy tanks, most polling shows that the voters, correctly, will blame Republicans. That could mean, as Boehner himself has reportedly warned his caucus, Democratic control of the House in 2015, or at the least, a loss of Republican seats and a narrower majority. In either case, Boehner probably loses his speakership—definitely so if the Democrats win the House, but probably so if his party loses seats in a midterm under a Democratic president, which almost never happens. The last time that happened to Republicans, in 1998, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) was obligated to resign.

Boehner’s dilemma, in short, is that if he cuts a deal with Democrats, he probably loses his speakership; and if he doesn’t, and things get bad for the Republicans, he probably loses his speakership. It’s a real damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. Maybe he can hang on if Republicans do lose seats but keep their majority, or perhaps the voters will forget all about this by next year (entirely possible, sad to say) and Republicans will increase their majority, in which case Boehner could keep his job. But those possibilities, at the moment, look unlikely.

So at this point, Speaker Boehner really has to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask himself this question: “If I’m going down one way or another, how do I want to go out?” And one hopes that he will decide it’s better to go out with some honor and dignity, and that he will work a deal with the Democrats, and a few reasonable Republicans in swing districts who are scared to death of losing their seats next year, to prevent an economic calamity. History will be far kinder to him if he sacrifices his speakership in a good cause. It would be far better to go out with his boots on than to be found, at the end, hiding under his desk, in fear of his own caucus, and going down as a coward.