Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Bucket of Cold Water in the Face in Freezing Weather

First, let me congratulate Charnielle Herring on her victory over Republican Joe Murray in the 46th's special election. However, it was the squeaker that shouldn't have been in a district that usually goes 70 to 75 percent Democratic. It was Brian Moran's reliably safe district, most of which sits comfortably in Alexandria. Kenton Ngo has one of his famous maps up, illustrating the district and which parts went red and which went a sort of rust color (I guess that's like purple - it denotes a not strong Republican area).

The New Dominion Project also reported that the House Republicans have voted to refuse to seat Herring.
The specific parliamentary motion to bar Herring from her seat was the rejection of a motion to take up the official communication from the State Board of Elections. When the House of Delegates receives the official SBE certification, it typically is placed on the calendar before the morning hour without objection
While that is probably a temporary inconvenience to an already short session in Richmond, I can't say I blame the GOPers when the race is that close. They want a recount.

More to the point, though: What happened?

I think several factors came together and led to this near upset of the Democrat. For one thing, the Republicans right now are simply hungrier for a victory than we are. They have had dismal showings in Virginia in two election cycles: 2007 and 2008. They poured a lot of money into taking this seat simply because they are hungry for any sign of resurgence. Even though Joe Murray's presence or absence wouldn't tip any balance in the Republican majority in the House of Delegates, right now the Republican Party needs any kind of win. It's more a morale booster to show the rank and file activists that they are on their way back up. And let's face it, what else do they have to do during the bleak month of January?

They certainly aren't out buying gowns for Inaugural balls or trying to scrounge up tickets to the actual Inauguration. Virginia Democrats, meanwhile, are - shall we say - otherwise distracted with exactly those activities. When you get outside of the commonwealth, the Inauguration is all anybody normal is talking about.

Most Democratic voters and even activists really want to bask in the warm glow of a hard won victory, not turn around and start the battle all over again in earnest. The Republicans, on the other hand, are eager for just that. If the situation were reversed, I'd be itching for the next fight and the sooner the better. But not now. Those of us who are paying attention, writing on blogs, going to phone banks and knocking on doors in 20 degree weather are doing it despite the fact that - this time - there really is something else we'd rather be doing. And that's taking a moment to enjoy what we've already accomplished.

And you can't discount voter fatigue. Anybody normal - not those of us who are political junkies - thinks this is nuts. And they are actually right. Vivian Paige summed it up perfectly (emphasis is mine):
Charniele Herring wins in the 46th - Charniele Herring won the special election in the 46th House district Tuesday by a whopping 16 votes. Say what you will about the results but I think the overwhelming factor is that Virginians are tired of elections. Something needs to be done with the never-ending election cycle. Even political junkies get tired.
As usual, Vivian is a voice of common sense who nails it.

Even if we never had a special election, the constant cycle of elections every year is tiring not just to political junkies but worse to voters. Voter fatigue is a real danger because it leads to disgust and people opting out of voting all together. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is exactly the original purpose of the never ending election cycle here in Virginia. Political machines don't want large voter turn out, which could actually lead to unpredictable results, They want a very predictable small core of party regulars to dominate the election process and how better to discourage large voter turn out than to have constant elections? But that no longer works for Democrats.

In fact, we lose ground in special elections. Almost always. It's how Ken Cuccinelli won his first election - I believe it was in a low turnout, low interest race while everybody was away on vacation.

Truly this time, there's not much that can be done about the back to back special elections that seem to be occurring on a daily basis in Northern Virginia. When Brian Moran resigned his seat, it made it a necessity. But if Charnielle Herring actually loses in a recount, Democrats will be furious that Moran's actions led to a Republican taking that seat because of the necessity of a special election on such short notice at the beginning of one of the coldest months of the year.

In the Fairfax County race for Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, on the other hand, there truly was nothing that could be done to prevent the special election. Gerry Connolly has wanted to run for Congress for a while and this was his time. He didn't step down until he had to. And everybody has a right to move up and to realize their dreams. Unlike Brian, I can't really fault Gerry. In fact, I'm genuinely happy for him and think he will serve Virginia well in Congress.

Nevertheless, Sharon Bulova faces some of the same obstacles that Charnielle Herring did - voter fatigue, political activists focused on Inauguration activities, and simple grassroots activists being burned out. Thankfully, though, Sharon's election is still a few weeks away, February 3. And Herring's oh so close call is not just a wake up - it's an ice cold bucket of water in our faces.

The Republicans are still hungry. We still want to bask in the warm glow of victory. But we can forget that now. It's time to shop for thermal underwear, rather than tuxes and ball gowns, and get out and knock on those doors. Let's not give the Republicans too big a morale boost going into the 2009 elections!


Reston Libertarian said...

"Political machines don't want large voter turn out, which could actually lead to unpredictable results"

I agree with your statement that political machines don't want unpredictable results, but special elections ultimately lead to unpredictable results, the opposite of what elected officials desired. Low turnout gives a small group of dedicated supporters, or a minority within a district, an opportunity to overrule a majority in a particular election. C. Herring had no idea she was in danger of losing this seat in a reliably democratic district. The political machines set up a system where a republican almost won.

The same thing may happen in the bulova-herrity race. Forget election fatigue by the democrats, in a low turnout race bulova could easily lose in a reliably blue county. Once again the political machines can not predict results.

For those of us who enjoy a little disruption to the status quo, the unpredictability of special elections gives us an opportunity to achieve victories in spite of the political machines.

Your post provides an excellent analysis.

I am feeling motivated, I need to go vote absentee for Herrity now.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Thank you for the compliment. But obviously, not quite the type of motivation I really wanted to provide :)

My point is that political machines (like the old Byrd machine) benefitted by depressing voter turn out. So does the GOP in Northern Virginia now. That's why they do so well in special elections.

I actually believe in a two party system, and that it is healthy for there to be a loyal opposition. Furthermore, I believe that a strong Republican Party and true competition make the Democrats better Democrats.

But I also think a system that allows small minorities to win elections when they are not representative of their districts is a problem.

My larger point wasn't the special elections (in a situation where somebody steps down, whether to be a candidate or to move on to higher office, special elections can't be avoided) but the normal cycle of yearly elections. Most states hold elections every two years. Our whole cycle has gotten so out of hand that it's producing voter fatigue. The special election merely exposed the problem more clearly.

Seriously, we need two strong parties competing for the vote by winning over voters, not one party slipping in by gaming a bad system (and not that Republicans are doing so deliberately - it's not their fault we have too many elections and are wearing out the public).

It's an issue that needs to be discussed. Right now, we are depressing voter turn out and threatening a vibrant democracy. That's more important, really, than which side is better at gaming a broken political system.