Did Virginia Democrats just make a mistake that will cost them a chance to win control of the General Assembly this fall, and possibly cost them the governorship in 2021?
Last weekend, Democrats decided not to field a candidate against state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. They had a candidate willing to run — Franklin County farmer Sherman Witcher — but the district committee voted 14-9 to nominate no one. Witcher did not impress the Democrats as a worthwhile candidate. He’s run twice before for the General Assembly as an independent, so comes close to the “bless his heart” category of “perennial candidate.”
For Southside Democrats, this was a bottom-line decision. There’s no reason to think even a strong Democrat could defeat Stanley. This district stretches from Carroll County to Halifax County through some of the most solidly Republican localities in the state; most Democratic candidates struggle here to break 40%. Why should Democrats waste resources here on a weak candidate here, when that could be better used in districts in the urban crescent where they might well knock off a Republican or two? That’s all Democrats need to take control of the state Senate, now currently split 21-19 in favor of Republicans.
Here’s one reason why. It comes courtesy of Roanoke Valley Republican activist Matt Colt Hall, who posted this on Facebook: “The Democrats have made a massive mistake that will cost them the Virginia State Senate. Leaving William M. Stanley unopposed is a mistake because he will rally and raise money for his colleagues, more importantly building a statewide profile at the same time.” Is Hall right? Let’s peel this onion and see.
Stanley does harbor statewide ambitions. He’s mentioned himself as a possible candidate for governor or attorney general. If he’s serious about that, he ought to run for governor. The field seems wide open now that Republicans have lost every statewide race since 2009. If you’re a candidate for attorney general, you’re at the mercy of the top of the ticket. Why not aim higher, especially since there seems a void?
This is the year that prospective statewide candidates need to be raising their profile: This is an off-year nationally but the busiest year in Virginia’s election cycle. All 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot. So are lots and lots of local offices. This is the ideal year to be making the rounds, showing up at party events to extol the virtues of local candidates — but also curry some favor for themselves.
A weak opponent wouldn’t keep Stanley from doing that, but it would tie him down some. Now he’s completely free to travel the state on behalf of fellow Republicans. On that score, Hall’s assessment is correct. Now, Democrats may not much care. Stanley’s just some guy; he’s not a Goliath. Both parties will likely be well-funded this fall and the fate of the General Assembly probably won’t be determined by whether a state senator from Franklin County shows up at a Republican event in some swing district. It’ll get determined by how voters feel about abortion and guns, how they feel about the governor and the president, maybe even how they feel about the actual candidates themselves.
Nor do Democrats likely see Stanley as much of a threat to their hold on the governorship. First, there may be other Republicans who wind up as the nominee. Our interest in Stanley is driven partly by his proximity; this side of the state doesn’t produce a lot of candidates for statewide office. Democrats may be in a state of, um, confusion right now given the scandals that have ensnared some of their top officeholders — but Democrats remain convinced that the state’s changing demographics are on their side. It’s also possible that Democrats wind up nominating someone who doesn’t have any connection to those scandals — either former Gov. Terry McAuliffe or state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond — which would effectively render these lingering scandals moot as a campaign issue.
Democrats likely look at Stanley and think: Please! As the state becomes more and more suburban, Democrats would surely love to run against a candidate from rural Southside who has bragged about his Glock — that would seem almost too easy a contrast from their point of view.
Here, though, is why Democrats may come to regret making it easier for Stanley to raise his profile. That’s because Stanley will not easily fit the stereotype that Democrats (and maybe even some Republicans) would like to put him in. Here’s our main reason for being interested in Stanley, aside from his address: So far, he’s the only Virginia politician who has proposed to take serious action about the state’s aging school buildings.
Gov. Ralph Northam took office decrying what he called “crumbling schools” and he was right — literally. Schools in Norfolk and Richmond have seen pieces of their ceilings come tumbling down. Schools in rural Lee County are physically coming apart. So are lots of others. Northam, though, hasn’t really followed through. He proposed adding $80 million to the state’s Literary Fund which provides loans for school construction; the legislature cut that to $35 million. That’s almost a gesture, not a real response. Six years ago, when Republican Bob McDonnell was governor, his administration estimated school construction needs at $18 billion. Even Stanley’s proposal is pretty meager by comparison: He proposed a $3 billion bond issue, which state legislators dispatched in just three minutes, with only a single comment. That doesn’t mean the issue has gone away, though. Schools are only getting older, and more technologically out of date.
This is an issue that, properly presented, could scramble the state’s political dynamics. There are old schools everywhere — but the best (or worst) examples are in central cities (usually represented by African-American Democrats) and rural areas (almost always represented by white Republicans). Neither type of locality has the money to upgrade or replace those buildings and neither party wants to talk about it. Democrats don’t, because they’d rather talk about raising teacher salaries. Republican’s don’t, because they don’t like spending money, period. Political orthodoxy on both sides basically prevents even a discussion of the problem. Would Stanley make a good governor? That’s a question for another day. But we’d love to see him try, simply to force a statewide debate on an issue both parties want to avoid.