Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dems Heading For A Big Fall?

Surely, ‘twas a great victory! For the first time in more than forty years, a Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, won Virginia’s electors, capturing more than 52% of the vote. Democrat Mark Warner won the U.S. Senate seat by an overwhelming landslide. Democratic candidates won previously Republican House of Representatives seats in the Second, Fifth, and Eleventh congressional districts. Oh yes. For Virginia Democrats, ‘twas a great victory!

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a reception for the Virginia presidential electors sponsored by the local Democratic committees. There was a moderate sized crowd, and it was fascinating for a college Political Science major like me. I always think of the electoral system by which we elect our presidents as an archaic relic of the eighteenth century. But here were eight or nine of Virginia’s electors describing the constitutional function that they had carried out earlier in the day. As the speeches went on, the gathering morphed into a belated election victory party. Everybody was bragging about what a great job they hand done to move Virginia out of the red. Now, all they had to do was concentrate on next year’s House of Delegates races to turn Virginia truly into a blue state. I mumbled under my breath, “We’ll be lucky to keep the State House.”

So why is the maven so discouraged when everybody else is so upbeat? For one thing, I am trying to avoid complacency. It is vital that Virginia Democrats not get into the mindset that the Commonwealth will become a permanently blue state by means of some inevitable historical development. That will not happen. Nothing is inevitable. Virginia will become a blue state only if lots of people put in the kind of time and effort they did this year to get Obama and Warner elected.

I am also not quite secure with the ability of the Virginia Democratic Party to get candidates elected. As I stated two years ago, Let’s Talk about the Democratic Party of Virginia, the Democratic Party does not elect candidates in Virginia. Rather it is the individual candidate committees that elect candidates to office. After this year’s election, I am convinced that I am still right.

The kind of party politics that I grew up with in Brooklyn is long gone. Now campaigns are run by professional political consultants hired by candidates rather than by political parties. One result of this change is that candidates don’t have any real loyalty to the party since they do not have to rely on the party to get elected. They run their own campaigns and raise their own money. The campaign staff they hire and the volunteers they recruit do not feel any loyalty to the party. When the election campaign is over they go back to doing what they were doing before the campaign. They generally do not transfer their talents to the state or local party.

This fall there were separate committees operating to elect Barack Obama as president and Mark Warner as senator. There were also eleven separate committees working to elect or re-elect members of Congress in the eleven congressional districts. They did not necessarily work together with the state Democratic Party or with local Democratic committees. This led to a rather chaotic situation, at least here in the City of Richmond.

At the September meeting of the Richmond City Democratic Committee, it became apparent to me that the committee as an entity was not a major player in the November elections. Rather than urging those present to work within the party for the election of the Democratic slate the message was to volunteer through the Obama or Warner headquarters within the city.

At the same September meeting, the followers of mayoral candidate Dwight Jones had sufficient members present to have the committee vote to endorse Jones for mayor. Although this vote was overturned by the state Democratic Party, the Jones supporters were again able to garner enough votes at an October meeting of the committee. (I am not criticizing Jones for this action. I also had my supporters work to get the committee to endorse my school board candidacy.) What did Jones gain from this endorsement? He was able to portray himself as a Democrat in his campaign literature and his name appeared as part of the Democratic slate on the party’s sample ballots. However, his campaign continued to be run by his own campaign committee.

During the last weeks before the election I tried to contact the Democratic leader for the fourth district (in which I was running) but without success. I e-mailed the members of the Richmond City Democratic Committee residing within the fourth district to find out who was covering the polls on Election Day. The few replies I received indicated that it was the Obama campaign, rather than the Democratic Committee that was staffing the polls on Election Day. I contacted the fourth district leaders for the Obama campaign to try to coordinate Election Day activities. I was told that they had everything under control and did not need my help.

During the final days before the election I found out that there was some kind of screw up with sample ballots and that I wouldn’t be receiving as many as I felt I needed for the election. I was told not to worry because the Obama campaign had lots of sample ballots which would benefit my candidacy. I found out at about 6:00 PM on Election Day that the sample ballots being distributed by Obama volunteers at the polls in the fourth district did not even have my name listed.

During the last weekend of the campaign I also discovered that only two of the six precincts in the fourth district had Democratic Committee members assigned as precinct captains. Fortunately, several of my friends had volunteered to cover the polls for me on Election Day.

I am not setting forth these facts as a complaint. My failure to win the fourth district school board race was not the fault of the Richmond City Democratic Committee. Even if the committee was well organized and worked for my election I would probably have still lost for a multitude of reasons. I do set forth these happenings to point out that the committee is not meeting its stated objective of promoting “Democratic principles through the support and assistance in the election of local, state and national Democratic candidates.”

The 2009 election will be tough for several reasons. First, Republican leaders throughout the country have indicated that winning the Virginia gubernatorial race is the key to the party’s recovery from the 2008 elections. GOP Aiming to Plant Seeds of Its Resurgence in Va. Governor's Race There will be tons of money coming into the Commonwealth and all the stars of the GOP will be working to win our State House.

Second, the Virginia Republican Party is united behind Bob McDonnell as its candidate for governor. The Dems, however, already have two declared candidates and most likely will have a third ere long. So, this spring, while Mr. McDonnell is concentrating on the general election campaign, the Democrats will be bogged down in what may be a divisive primary campaign.

Third, Bob McDonnell has been serving as Virginia’s attorney general for the last three years and is clearly better known to voters in the Commonwealth that any of the potential Democratic nominees. This will give him a clear advantage in the November election.

If Virginia is to truly become a blue state the state Democratic Party must organize itself to provide maximum support for whoever wins the primaries. Local committees, like the Richmond City Democratic Committee, must also organize to assure that the Democratic candidates for all offices are fully supported in their campaigns. We Democrats cannot rely on a charismatic candidate, like Obama or Warner, to turn on the electorate.

One final thing. In this year’s election campaign I saw very little support of one Democratic candidate for another. While individual candidates were happy to run as Democrats because they thought it would help their own candidates, there was only one instance that I am aware of where a Democratic candidate urged the election of all Democrats running for office. The week before the election, I received an automated telephone call from third district representative Bobby Scott urging voters to vote for Barack Obama and the entire Democratic ticket. This has to change.

1 comment:

vjp said...

Learned a lot about how things actually work (as opposed to how they should work), huh? Sorry you had to learn the hard way.

(And if this is a duplicate, please delete.)