By Frank Blechman
By the time this is published, we will be just eight weeks from the Republican Nominating Convention and a little more than 12 weeks from the Democratic primary. The filing deadline passed last week. A few TV ads have appeared and some candidate paper mail has arrived. My email has plenty of appeals for support (and money), but it is hard to sense that the campaigns are at critical stages, or that these nominating contests are really that important at all.
When I was 60 years younger and the Byrd political organization still held sway, I understood very well that the “nominations” were the real elections, since the Democratic candidate always won. Fifty years ago, it all got more interesting as the party membership realigned. By 1973, most of the old-line Democrats had become Republicans. That was the year it appeared neither party would nominate a candidate for governor. In the end that year, progressive Democrats nominated firebrand Henry Howell, who ultimately lost to conservative former Democratic Governor Mills Godwin (1965-69), in 1973 the Republican candidate.
This year, again, both parties have ideological factions vying for control. “Establishment” Republicans, aware that Trump has never been very popular in Virginia, are trying to hold back the Trumpistas. Progressive Democrats are pressing old leadership to step aside for bolder, younger, more-diverse faces. Those clashes should make for good drama, good media, and even some level of excitement.
Yes, I’m feeling very little public awareness, much less engagement. A semi-colleague (who shall remain nameless) has been arguing with me that the problem is most of the candidates, at least on the Democratic side, have not published comprehensive platforms spelling out their priorities and plans to address them. He has expressed disappointment that none have made his proposals for a unicameral legislature, voting rights for 16-year-olds, or eliminating the Dillon Rule (promoting “home rule” for local jurisdictions), centerpieces of their campaigns. He is certain that if they did adopt these positions, they would immediately gain vast attention and support.
While all campaigns try to claim leadership on hot-button issues, and some even post ‘position-papers’, very few statewide nomination campaigns in Virginia actually turn on headline issues.
My response is that while all campaigns try to claim leadership on hot-button issues, and some even post ‘position-papers’, very few statewide nomination campaigns in Virginia actually turn on headline issues. I suspect that this is so because power is so dispersed in our Commonwealth that no individual, no matter how passionate, intelligent, or wily, can realistically “deliver” such major changes by him- or herself. Anyone who promises that they will do these things would be rightly viewed as a little unbalanced, uninformed, or otherwise unqualified for public office. In case that weren’t true in the past, which I think it was, four years of the previous national administration’s empty promises have driven home a caution regarding assertions that a certain candidate can singularly “get it done.”
I can recall a few general elections in which bumper-sticker slogans (1997, Gilmore for Governor, “No Car Tax”, is one shining example) did have a major impact, but those are the exceptions, not the norm.
Further, my perception is that many voters correctly look for political leaders using the same approach they apply selecting leaders in their work, their religious institution, or their communities: Voters look at how candidates have gotten things done in the past, more than what they claim they will do in the future.
Further, my perception is that many voters correctly look for political leaders using the same approach they apply selecting leaders in their work, their religious institution, or their communities: Voters look at how candidates have gotten things done in the past, more than what they claim they will do in the future. How did the candidates assemble resources and support to make changes in the past? Have they done that intelligently, transparently, and honestly? Are people who have worked with them in the past still willing to stand by them?
I am not saying that statewide political nominations are just popularity contests. Often, we have seen the candidate with most name recognition, and the most money, lose to candidates less bombastic, but more credible. So far, the polls on both party nominations show that 50% or more have not yet made up their minds. My own conversations suggest that even among folks who normally consider themselves ‘politically aware’, most cannot name the majority of candidates for any of the statewide offices. I carry a card in my pocket to jog my memory.
In our Internet age with 24-hour instant news, a lot can happen in a day, much more in the weeks before nominations, or six months until the general election. Excitement may build. Voters may turn out in record numbers. This may prove to be a watershed changing our political patterns for a generation. So far, however, it looks like an off-year election in which voters heave a huge sigh of relief from the trauma of 2020, struggle toward a new ‘normal’, and hope the politicians will leave them alone.