Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold . ..
— W.B. Yeatts
The recent elections to the European Parliament channeled the most-quoted line from the poem “The Second Coming” by the Irish poet W.B. Yeatts. The traditional mainstream parties of both the left and right lost. Instead, the big winners were parties further to the left and further to the right — some emphatically for closer European ties, some emphatically “Euroskeptics.” The center did not hold there.
Ultimately, that’s Europe’s problem, although in today’s world, everything is connected, whether we want it to be or not. If you have any money in a 401k, its value will rise or fall depending on what the markets think about Brexit and lots of other things.
The immediate question for us concerns Tuesday’s primaries that will select candidates for this fall’s General Assembly elections or, more realistically, a vote that will select the candidates who will win by default in non-competitive districts. Will Yeatts be a prophet there? Will the center hold or will things fall apart? We won’t know until November whether Democrats or Republicans will control the next General Assembly — Republicans currently hold the slimmest of majorities, 51-49 in the House, 21-19 in the Senate. But we’ll know Tuesday night whether the Democratic caucus will be more liberal than it is now and whether the Republican caucus will be more conservative than it is now. There aren’t many primaries taking place across the state and the ones in our immediate area don’t have anything to do with the General Assembly. In Roanoke, voters will effectively chose the next clerk of court; in Bedford and Botetourt counties, they may tell us who the next sheriff there will be. In Roanoke County, a party-run “firehouse primary” will effectively choose the next supervisor from Windsor Hills. That’s what happens when communities become so dominated by one party — in this case, Democrats in Roanoke and Republicans everywhere else. If you care about who holds those offices, you need to vote Tuesday because November won’t really matter.
The General Assembly primaries are elsewhere and, at some level, they all deal with the same question: Do voters in one-party districts want legislators who can at least see the center or do they want someone further to the left or the right? When the choice is left to hardcore party activists, the answer is often the latter – which explains why we see so few moderates in either party, and so little bipartisanship in either Richmond or Washington. Editorial writers praise bipartisan discussions as a sign of statesmanship; the most aggressive party activists often see any willingness to work across the aisle as a betrayal of core principles. We’ll find out Tuesday whether Democrats want to go further left and Republicans want to go further right. On the Democratic side, the most important Democrat of all — Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County – faces a challenge from his left. So does Sen. Barbara Favola of Arlington. In Manassas, Del. Lee Carter faces a rare challenge from his right, but, to be fair, there’s a lot of room to his right since Carter is an avowed socialist.
On the Republican side, we’ve already seen a chaotic nomination fight between Del. Chris Peace of Hanover County and his challenger to the right. (At the moment, the outcome of that party-run process is very much in dispute.) Elsewhere, Del. Rob Thomas of Fredericksburg is being challenged from the right. So is one of the most influential Republicans in the Senate — Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
There are other primaries going on, but these are the main ones where we can watch the ideological dynamics at work. There are complicated details in each one that provide some asterisks. Saslaw, for instance, is typically identified as D-Fairfax County, but to many people that “D” stands for Dominion Energy, not the Democratic Party. His close alliance with Dominion has become more difficult to explain to party activists who see the state’s largest utility as the hidden hand behind Virginia state government. On the Republican side, one of the ideological “sins” that Hanger, Thomas and Peace have committed is that they voted to expand Medicaid. A curiosity: The Republicans who drove that expansion were primarily legislators from far Southwest Virginia who were increasingly worried about local hospitals closing. Many of them feared primary challenges but most never materialized. There are 23 pro-Medicaid Republicans running this year; only three have drawn a primary challenge. Perhaps that’s because their constituents see the practical benefits: The highest rate of new Medicaid enrollees are in Southwest and Southside Virginia. Noticeably, those three challenges inspired by Medicaid haven’t been there; they’ve come instead in places where the economy is strong and hospitals aren’t in danger of shutting down. Candidates there have the luxury of campaigning on their airy philosophy and not the hard practicalities of just how to provide health care in the most impoverished parts of rural Virginia. Saslaw hasn’t exactly been an advocate for rural Virginia so maybe it doesn’t matter to us who wins or loses there, but those who care about rural Virginia have a reason to pay attention to the Republican races: Will those who cast a key vote be punished by their party? The challenge to Hanger is of interest for other reasons. Once Hanger was considered one of the most conservative legislators in Richmond. He hasn’t changed, but the Republican Party has. Hanger’s challenger is Tina Freitas of Culpeper County. Her election would create the first husband-wife team in the General Assembly; her husband, Nick, is in the House. Her election would do something else, too. Once that district was confined to the Shenandoah Valley. Now it extends to the outer edges of Northern Virginia. Redistricting after the next census will reduce the number of legislators from west of the Blue Ridge, but Republican primary voters on Tuesday might start that process if they chose Freitas over Hanger.
Perhaps it’s worth quoting the part of Yeatts’ poem that comes after the famous line about the center not holding:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.