Category Archives: Politics

Ed Gillespie Tax Plan Checks All the Right Boxes

Ed Gillespie addresses the GOP convention in Roanoke.

Ed Gillespie addresses the GOP convention in Roanoke. Photo credit: Washington Post.

Republican Ed Gillespie has issued a blueprint for tax cuts that could define the terms of debate for Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign. It is a fiscally credible plan. It offers a well-articulated vision for how to jump-start Virginia’s economy. That’s not to say the plan is unassailable, but it is too big and bold to be ignored. Indeed, Republican rival Corey Stewart rolled out his own tax cut plan just a few hours after Gillespie’s announcement. Democratic candidates likewise will be forced to respond.

There are two parts to the Gillespie plan. The first is an across-the-board cut of 10% to state income tax rates, which the campaign says will put nearly $1,300 per year back into the pockets of an average family of four. Gillespie would phase in the tax cut over a five-year period, paying for it out of an anticipated $3.4 billion in state revenue growth, leaving about 60% of the new revenue to fund core services.

The second part would sunset three anti-business, “job-killing” taxes levied by local governments: the Business and Professional Occupancy License tax (or BPOL), the machinery & tools tax, and the merchants tax. To replace lost revenues, he would allow local governments to utilize alternative revenue streams from an unspecified “menu of options” that will be “collaboratively developed.” One option the menu will not include is a local income tax. Localities would be free to re-enact the business taxes or choose from the options.

Not only will the tax restructuring boost disposable income for an average household for four when fully phased in, Gillespie claims, it will stimulate $300 million a year in new economic activity, create 50,000 additional private-sector jobs (25% more than would be created otherwise), and help recruit and retain talented workers. These economic estimates are based upon the work of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy using economic modeling tools of the Beacon Hill Institute.

The vision. The underlying premise of the plan is that Virginia’s economy is sluggish and needs a jolt to get moving again. Says the plan overview:

Our approach to economic development is antiquated and tired, and Virginia is losing ground to other states. Our economic growth rate has trailed the national average for five straight years. … Virginia’s antiquated ta code was designed in a bygone era and our income tax rates have never been lowered since they were established in 1972. Our tax climate ranking fell to 33rd in 2017, falling behind neighboring states like North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Our business rankings are falling, and more people are moving out of Virginia than moving in.

What won’t revive Virginia’s economy, says Gillespie, is picking winners and losers with subsidies, tax breaks and other preferences.

The plan will raise take-home pay for hard-working Virginians squeezed by stagnant wages and higher costs, orient our economy toward start ups and raise ups, entrepreneurs and small businesses, and make Virginia more competitive and attractive to businesses, retirees and veterans. …

Instead of solely focusing our efforts on throwing taxpayer dollars at big corporations and hoping they move to Virginia, this plan is crafted to foster natural, organic economic growth over the long term through a more patient approach that will help start ups, entrepreneurs, and existing small businesses. …

The path to diversifying our economy will be charted by entrepreneurs given greater freedom to invest and innovate. They will identify the new sectors, services and products to flourish in Virginia, not a top-down government approach that picks winners and losers in the marketplace, and too often makes the wrong bets with your tax dollars.

The fiscal math. Gillespie has structured the plan to fend off the inevitable criticism that his plan will crimp funding for critical government services. First, he says, he will offset revenue reductions by eliminating “special interest tax preferences, cutting wasteful spending, and conducting a full review of economic development programs.” Second, he will build in revenue triggers to protect critical investments in education, health care, transportation, public safety, and other core revenues.

Gillespie’s plan is vague about exactly which “special interest tax preferences” he would cut — and he’s vague about the “revenue triggers.” Virginia’s tax code is larded  with tax breaks, but the big ones are political popular and eliminating the small ones yield only modest savings. In effect, Gillespie is punting some of the tough political choices until later. As for the tax revenue triggers, presumably, they would limit the tax phase-out in any given year if revenues fail to meet expectations. Undoubtedly, there would be considerable discussion over how sensitive to revenue shortfalls those triggers should be. Continue reading

Frank Wagner Calls for College Tuition Freezes

Frank Wagner, Republican candidate for governor, calls for college tuition freeze.

Frank Wagner. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, has called for a tuition freeze for public colleges and universities in Virginia as soon as the state economy improves and revenues start climbing again. Moreover, in a speech delivered Friday on the Senate floor, he proposed restrictions on the funding of for financial assistance to out-of-state students.

While many General Assembly members spoke out in the 2017 session against runaway tuition increases, Wagner is the first candidate for statewide office — he’s one of four running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination — to advocate a tuition freeze.

Over the last decade, he said, tuition and fees at the University of Virginia, Christopher Newport University and Virginia Commonwealth University have more than doubled, while the cost has tripled at the College of William & Mary.

“We have to stop balancing the budget on the backs of Virginia’s college students,” said Wagner. “This path is unsustainable for Virginia students and their families and for society as a whole.”

Wagner proffered several possible remedies. He backed a “freeze” in tuition and fees, adding that tuition and fees should not increase during the four years a student is in school. Roughly half the increase in tuition (though not fees, room or board) can be attributed to cuts in state funding. As the economy improves, he said, state tax revenues from improved economic growth should be “set aside for colleges and universities so we can reduce the burden on the students.”

He also recommended capping tuition increases either by the Consumer Price Index or the National Wage Average Index, declaring, “There has to be some nexus between what our colleges and universities need to operate and what is happening in the real world.”

In a related issue, Wagner suggested prohibiting the use of in-state tuition revenue for the purpose of providing financial assistance, and prohibiting the use state tax revenue or debt proceeds toward financial assistance for out-of-state-students. While Virginia institutions provide almost as much financial aid to out-of-state students as to in-state students (and more per recipient), the extent to which out-of-state aid is funded by tuition as opposed to other money sources is not clear, and he provided no specifics.

His gubernatorial campaign website provides no additional specifics.

Bacon’s bottom line: Wagner is leaving a lot of room for leeway here. A wage freeze is one thing, indexing tuition increases is another. He clearly thinks the state has a role in holding down rates by bolstering state aid to universities, but he sounds like he thinks universities bear some responsibility, too. He needs to get more specific about exactly what he’s proposing. But I’m betting he’ll get some traction. College tuition may not be not a top-tier issue like jobs and K-12 education, but it’s definitely a solid second-tier issue. It will be interesting to see how the public responds.

Update: State law already requires colleges to charge out-of-state students at least 100% of the cost of their education, including capital costs. In practice out-of-staters cover 160% of their costs on average, according to Peter Blake, director of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). Additionally, state law also prohibits the use of in-state tuition revenue for financial aid. The only state funding for out-of-state students is in the form of graduate financial aid, which often has a work component tied to it, Blake says.

Steve Bannon: Richmond Boy Made Good… Er Bad

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon

by Les Schreiber

Virginia has contributed much to the political growth of the United States: George Washington as leader of the Revolutionary Army and first president; Patrick Henry as fiery supporter of the Revolution; Thomas Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence and third president. More recently, Doug Wilder became the first African American to be the elected governor of a Southern state since Reconstruction.

Now, the most famous Virginian at the national level is Steve Bannon, a graduate of Benedictine High School and Virginia Tech. Some national publications have indicated that he has more influence with president Trump than even even the Veep. His role has been magnified by his elevation to the National Security Council, the  only political operative in U.S. history to be given such a distinction.

Bannon also is also an avowed anti-Semite. According to divorce papers filed in California vited by the New York Times, Bannon wanted to remove his children from the Archer School in Los Angeles because he thought there were too many Jews there and they were all “whiny brats.” According to this deposition, he was offended by a collection of books that explained the Jewish festival of Chanukah.

Bannon’s website Breitbart News referred to a conservative columnist as a Renegade Jew and in writing about famous investor George Soros that “Hell hath no fury” like that of a Polish American Jew when he senses that he has not received appropriate deference.

The Anti-Defamation League has written that Bannon, through the Bretibart website, has advanced ideologies that are antithetical to American values by including, ant-Semiticsm, misogyny, racism, and Islamaphobia.

The New York Times reported recently that in 2014, Bannon attended a conference of conservative clergy where he referred consistently to the writings of an obscure Italian philosopher, Julius Avola. Mussolini based his 1938 racial laws restricting the rights of Jews in Italy on Avola’s writings. The Times further reports that last March Bannon’s website, Breitbart, stated that Avila provided the foundations for the Alt Right movement that Bannon champions.

Bannon does not seem to be fit to hold so lofty a post in government.

Virginia’s Republican members of Congress such as Rep. Dave Brat must vocally disavow Bannon’s repulsive ideas and work to remove him from any role in the Republican Party. Their continued silence in the face of this information that they are morally and intellectually bankrupt. Their failure contaminates what true conservatism is about.

Corey Stewart Defines Himself through the Fights He Picks

Corey Stewart (left) appeared last week with Jason Kessler, a conservative blogger-activist, after Kessler petitioned to remove the vice mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, from office.

Corey Stewart (left) appeared last week with Jason Kessler, a conservative blogger-activist, after Kessler petitioned to remove the vice mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, from office. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

I met Corey Stewart, Republican candidate for governor, for the first time last night and interviewed him outside a public hearing about coal ash disposal. The Prince William County board chairman came across as a genial guy. But he’s not one to run away from a fight. Indeed, he’s more likely to be the first one to charge into the fray.

With Ed Gillespie as the perceived front-runner in the Republican race, Stewart evidently has decided that the best way to get attention and define himself as a tribune of the people is to pick the right fights. That strategy certainly was on display last night when he lambasted Dominion Virginia Power to the cheers of many in the audience for its closure-in-place proposal for dealing with coal ash at its Possum Point Power Station.

“Dominion has been less than honest with Prince William County,” Stewart said. Then, referring to a series of local controversies over the impact of coal ash on surface and ground water, he said, “Dominion lies. You have to be very skeptical of what they tell you.”

I wasn’t paying attention to Virginia politics in 1973 when Democratic candidate Henry Howell took on Dominion’s predecessor company, vowing to “keep the big boys honest.” But I can’t imagine that he was any more blunt in his denunciation. The issue back then was electric rates, not the environment, but Howell nearly rode the slogan to victory.

Stewart is best known for his hard line approach to illegal immigration. His campaign website boasts that under his leadership, Prince William County turned over 7,500 criminal illegal aliens for deportation. He says he will work “side-by-side with the Trump administration” to oppose amnesty and sanctuary cities in Virginia.

Along similar lines, he has aligned himself with a far-right group in Charlottesville to protest, among other things, City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the public square. Mobbed last week by counter-protesters who drowned out his words, Stewart reportedly handled himself with aplomb. But his views seem pitched to the same kind of disaffected white working- and middle-class voters who voted for Donald Trump, for whom he acted as Virginia campaign chairman. Just wait until next week, he told me. He’ll be back in Charlottesville.

Stewart also joined conservative activist-blogger Jason Kessler in calling for the removal of Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy from office. Bellamy had posted misogynistic, homophobic and anti-white comments on Twitter before his election to Charlottesville City Council in 2015.

I asked Stewart to elaborate upon his view of Dominion. He said it’s wrong for a monopoly utility to insert itself so deeply into the political and regulatory process. “This is what happens when every member of the General Assembly is taking thousands of dollars from Dominion. DEQ (the Department of Environmental Quality) rubber-stamps every thing Dominion wants.”

If he becomes governor, Stewart said, “Heads are going to roll” — starting with the chief of DEQ, David Paylor. Then, alluding to Denver Riggleman, one of his three Republican rivals for the governorship who also has campaigned against Dominion, he quipped, “I’ll put Riggleman in there.”

Lefties Confront Stewart. Stewart Wins.

Corey Stewart struggles to be heard.

Corey Stewart struggles to be heard. Photo credit: Washington Post.

Corey Stewart is one of those politicians that you either love or love to hate. He’s a conservative populist who built a state-wide reputation on his pugnacious, in-your-face opposition to illegal immigration. And as the prominent Virginia politician to align himself mostly closely with Donald Trump, he is surely loathed by many.

Whatever you might think about Stewart, though, he’s entitled to speak his views like anyone else.

It’s one thing to denounce him as a bigot and a white supremacist — his enemies are entitled to free speech, too — but quite another to disrupt his campaign appearances. Lefties may think they’re accomplishing something by shutting him down, but it’s probably not what they think — they’re engendering sympathy for a not-very-sympathetic guy.

Stewart visited the Peoples Republic of Charlottesville a couple of days ago to defend the statue of Robert E. Lee, which City Council had previously voted to remove. On social media, he had urged people to “defend Virginia’s heritage,” and likened those who wanted to remove the statue to tyrants and Nazis, according to the Washington Post.

His appearance was met by protesters who drowned out his interviews and conversations with shouts of, “White supremacy has got to go!” Hoisting signs saying, “Ban Bigots,” and “No tolerance for white supremacy,” protesters yelled at him to go back to Prince William County. As he left, they shouted, “Whose town? Our town!”

If anyone has that kind of treatment coming, it’s Stewart: His rhetoric toward illegal immigrants has been harsh and uncompromising. And if Charlottesville lefties want to vent online or hold their own demonstrations, I’m fine with that. But I have to say, Stewart handled the disruption with class.

“Stewart took it in stride, frequently grinning and trying to chat up his detractors,” the Post writes.

Stewart welcomed the protests and the attention they would bring, believing  they would buttress his pitch as a conservative standing up to an intolerant left and “political correctness.”

I’m calling them out for who they are,” Stewart said. “It’s really a symptom of the left and their unwillingness to listen to alternative points of view.”

Score one for Stewart.

Lefties in Charlottesville and elsewhere make much of their desire for “inclusiveness.” But their version of “inclusiveness” and “tolerance” includes only those groups friendly to their point of view. A truly inclusive viewpoint would say, “Sure, we’ll keep the Robert E. Lee statue because many people still revere him as a hero. We’ll build statues for our own heroes and heroines. Our community can tolerate them all because we embrace the diversity of cultures, sub-cultures and viewpoints.”

But that’s not the Left’s approach. They want to expunge the heroes of their ideological enemies. They want to exclude other points of view from the public realm. Their viewpoint is relentlessly negative. Erecting a statue of a politically correct hero would be a positive action. But if anyone has proposed doing so, the effort hasn’t gained enough steam to be noticed. The Left’s advocacy of diversity applies to race and ethnicity only. It is a pinched and intolerant view that excludes anyone who thinks differently, including dissenting views of blacks, gays and other minorities.

I part ways with Stewart because I think there are ways to justify restrictions on illegal immigration without demonizing millions of people who came to this country not to create mayhem but to better their lives. It is possible to both sympathize with the aspirations of those who want to live here even while saying firmly, sorry, this is a nation of laws, and if you want to live here, you cannot enter and stay in this country illegally. We can deal with the issue in a humane way.

Corey Stewart is not the guy I want to be making the stand against political correctness in Virginia. But he’s the one doing it, and the Left is making him look good by comparison.

Keep the Politicians Honest, Too

Dominion Virginia Power is coming under fire from all sides as it tries to balance reliability, cost and sustainability.

Dominion Virginia Power is coming under fire from all sides as it tries to balance reliability, cost and sustainability.

“Keep the big boys honest,” was the campaign tag-line of populist “Howlin” Henry Howell when he very nearly won his bid for the governorship in 1973. By “big boys,” he was referring to executives of VEPCO, a predecessor company to Dominion Virginia Power. Four decades later, it appears that Howell’s rhetoric is coming back in style.

As the Associated Press summarizes:

Two out of four GOP primary contestants are openly hostile to Dominion and want to ban the company from making campaign donations. An insurgent Democrat is indicating he’ll make the company’s broad political influence a significant campaign talking point. …

“Somebody has to drag these vampires into the sunlight,” said GOP candidate Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner who battled Dominion over eminent domain issues. Riggleman had a Capitol news conference Tuesday to pledge support for longshot legislation that would prohibit regulated monopolies from making campaign contributions. …

Republican Corey Stewart, a one-time Trump campaign chairman in Virginia, said if elected he would support the ban on donations from regulated monopolies as well and would look at other areas to curb the company’s political influence. “They have virtually every member of the General Assembly in their pocket,” Stewart said. …

On the Democratic side, former Congressman Tom Perriello is also making Dominion’s influence a campaign issue. “Tom believes our political system has become too rigged in favor of big corporations and special interests and that Virginians suffer when the very politicians charged with regulating monopolies accept campaign contributions from them,” his spokesman Ian Sams said.

Is Dominion worried? Spokesman David Botkins sounds confident the company can weather the latest storm: “Our 2.5 million customers tell us they are very, very happy with their low rates, superb reliability, cleaner air, and an energy independent Virginia.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Bashing the electric company is a time-honored tradition in the United States, and Virginia is no exception. Dominion Virginia Power is in politicians’ cross-hairs for multiple reasons. Environmentalists say the company is moving too slowly in adopting renewable fuels, and they say it should spend more to clean up its coal ash ponds. On the flip side, electric customers charge that a freeze in base rates negotiated a year ago locks in excess profits. Then landowners in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a project managed by parent company Dominion, as well as proposed new electric transmission lines, are up in arms. Meanwhile, there’s no denying that Dominion enjoys enormous clout in the General Assembly and the McAuliffe administration. It should surprise no one that Dominion has become a target of populist wrath.

As the debate unfolds, however, voters should bear in mind that Dominion, like Appalachian Power Co. and Virginia’s electric co-ops, must strike a balance between three broad goals: keeping rates low, keeping the lights on, and transitioning to cleaner fuels. Accomplishing all three requires trade-offs, making it impossible to fully satisfy all constituencies. If you add a fourth goal — promoting economic development — the tradeoffs become even more complex.

Dominion’s No. 1 priority is keeping the lights on. Let’s face it, nothing enrages people more than going without electricity for more than an hour or two. But ensuring reliability does not come free. By burying vulnerable distribution lines underground, for instance, the company can reduce the number and length of outages due to storms. That costs hundreds of millions of dollars, driving rates higher. How much are electricity customers willing to pay for an additional increment of reliability?

Similarly, the company could move more aggressively to embrace solar and wind power, but the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources threatens the stability of local distribution circuits. Before integrating renewables on a large scale, Dominion is proceeding with a series of small pilot projects to test the impact on local distribution lines. If you value reliability, you’re probably happy with the approach. If your top priority is combating climate change, you’re probably not.

Meanwhile, the company has been restructuring its transmission grid in response to federal clear air mandates — first to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic minerals, and more recently to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Meeting those goals has required a massive shift from coal to natural gas and renewables. That entails not only building new power plants in new locations and importing electricity via wholesale markets from outside the state, it requires erecting new transmission lines to handle the re-routed electricity flows. Landowners understandably don’t like looking at electric transmission lines. But you can’t stick with the old electric grid and also have clean energy.

That’s not to say things can’t be done differently. Arguably, Dominion Virginia Power cut a sweet deal for itself when the legislatures froze its base rate. Arguably, the company could be more cooperative in allowing homeowners and small businesses to work with third-party providers of clean energy sources. Arguably, Virginia’s eminent domain laws could treat landowners more justly. Arguably, the system could be tweaked in many ways. But it always comes back to setting priorities and making tradeoffs. There is no way to satisfy everyone.

Let’s hope Virginia’s candidates for higher office keep that simple truth in mind as we enter the campaign silly season.

How to Give Virginians Real School Choice

Vouchers could make school choice a reality for thousands of Virginians.

Students at Immanuel Christian School in Northern Virginia. Tuition ranges from $7,500 to $10,000 a year. Four thousand-dollar vouchers would make school choice a reality for hundreds of thousands more Virginians.

Virginians enjoy a wide range of school choice… providing that they are affluent enough. If they can’t afford to pay private school tuition or buy a house in neighborhoods served by the best public schools, however, their options are limited.

The Old Dominion has among the smallest number of charter schools in the country — nine. The state does provide a tax credit to encourage donations to approved educational foundations, of which there are 34. But in fiscal 2016 those foundations provided only 2,882 scholarships — no more than a rounding error in the Commonwealth’s nearly 1.3 million school-age population. Virginia does allow parents to home-school their children, but the number of families in a position to pursue that option also is modest — the Virginia Department of Education counted only 33,400 home-schooled students in fiscal 2016.

In sum, Virginia’s educational system does a fine job of serving the state’s more affluent citizens but restricts opportunities for those who are less better-off. The poorest households are stuck in failing inner-city and rural school districts with no way of getting out. And the quality of education in Virginia’s worst schools is abysmal. Of the state’s 1,825 public schools, 22% were either denied accreditation or received only partial accreditation under the state’s minimalist standards.

The traditional solution espoused by the teacher’s lobby is mo’ money. There is nothing about Virginia’s educational system that can’t be improved by dumping extra dollars into it! But let’s face it: Given impending budget shortfalls, the big question facing the General Assembly in January is which programs get cut and by how much. Virginia’s K-12 school system won’t be getting any more state funding next year, and chronic budget pressures over the next decade suggest that there won’t be much more forthcoming in the decade ahead.

Tinkering with the system won’t accomplish anything meaningful. The inability of the political establishment to alter the educational status quo creates a tremendous opportunity for an insurgent movement such as the Libertarian Party to advance a bold proposal.

It’s time to think big.

Broadly speaking, there are three main sources of revenue for K-12 education in Virginia: local revenue, state revenue and federal revenue. The state component, referred to in the General Fund budget as “Direct Aid to Public Education,” is budgeted to receive $5.8 billion this fiscal year, although that sum might be trimmed during the upcoming General Assembly session in anticipation of a revenue shortfall.

That $5.8 billion is distributed to local governments according to a complicated formula, but it averages about $4,500 per student.

I propose transforming K-12 education by using the state aid to empower parents and promote school choice. Parents could continue sending their children to public school if they desired, and the school district would continue receiving state aid as it always had. But anyone choosing to send a child to a private school (or home school) would receive a $4,000 voucher reflecting the state’s cost in providing that education.

Admittedly, $4,000 is not enough by itself to cover a private school tuition. But it’s enough to cover a significant portion of the tuition, making private school more affordable for middle-class families than it is today. Families that couldn’t afford to pay, say, $8,000 a year in tuition perhaps could afford to pay $4,000. For poor families, the $4,000 would supplement scholarship dollars, enabling scholarship foundations to stretch their resources over more students. For home schoolers, the sum would be a boon to distance learning, teaching collaboratives and free-lance teachers, spurring innovation in how education is organized and delivered.

The beauty of the arrangement is that it benefits public schools, too. While public districts would lose some state money, they would have fewer students to educate. Fewer students would translate into more local dollars per student. Everybody wins — everybody, that is, but the ideologues who oppose private education.

This idea is a broad framework only, and there could be many wrinkles to iron out. The most obvious is the need to hold private schools accountable. Perhaps any school accepting voucher funds would be required to meet the same Standards of Learning criteria as public schools do. Not all private schools are created equal. There needs to be a mechanism for weeding out the bad schools, and the SOLs might do the trick.

Another problem is that state aid is not distributed to school districts equally. Wealthier school districts get fewer state dollars; poorer school districts get more. Handing out vouchers would create winners and losers, and losers would oppose any change to the status quo. But that’s a small price to pay to give financially strapped families genuine school choice and to foster innovation by entrepreneurs and educators.

Natural Libertarians, a Virginia Majority

Natural Libertarians -- leaving other Virginians alone since 1776.

Natural Libertarians — leaving other Virginians alone since 1776.

It’s the holiday season, the news is slow, and I’ve been thinking about things that I probably shouldn’t be thinking about.  One is how to convert the latent “small L” libertarian potential of Virginia’s electorate into a meaningful political force.

A large percentage of the Virginia population, I firmly believe, is what writer Lee Harris has termed “natural libertarians” — libertarians by inclination, not ideology. In 2011 he wrote prophetically:

The natural libertarian, whenever he feels that his self-image as a free and independent individual is under assault, will turn to a defense mechanism that is not listed in the classic Freudian inventory: he will become ornery. … Orneriness is often a highly effective defense mechanism against bossy people and bullies. …

One of the most striking characteristics of ornery people is that they don’t want to boss other people around any more than they want to be bossed around themselves. … The ornery man’s idea of liberty is the liberty to be left in peace, to tend to his own affairs, to pursue his business, make his home, raise his kids, without being told what to do or how to do it by other people.

Without question, orneriness fueled Donald Trump’s electoral victory — although I am not sure how natural libertarians will feel about their new president after he has governed a couple of years. Be that as it may, the live-and-let-live, leave-me-alone-and-I’ll-leave-you-alone impulse is a strong one in Virginia.  Natural libertarians skew toward Republicans and conservatives on issues relating to fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, less regulation but they lean toward Democrats and liberals on cultural issues such as gay rights and abortion. The Republican-Democratic duopoly offers no haven for natural libertarians.

A February 2016 Wason Center poll indicates how much of the population is up for grabs. Here’s how the Virginia electorate broke down by party loyalty:

Republican — 21%
Independent, leaning Republican — 20%
Independent — 16%
Independent, leaning Democrat — 14%
Democrat — 24%

More than half the electorate describes itself as independent to greater or lesser degree.  The Wason poll also provided this breakdown by liberal/conservative ideology:

Strong liberal — 5%
Liberal — 13%
Moderate, leaning liberal — 15%
Moderate, leaning conservative — 25%
Conservative — 23%
Strong conservative — 10%

Moderates outnumber both liberals and conservatives (although by a smaller plurality than independents outnumber Rs and Ds.) I would bet that if you queried most moderates and independents, you would find them to be natural libertarians. If the natural libertarians had a party that fully represented their priorities, it would dominate state politics.

Given the make-up of the electorate, I cannot help but wonder why the “Big L” Libertarian Party hasn’t made bigger gains in the Old Dominion. Robert Sarvis won about 6.5% of the vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election, a record, but he was running against duopoly-party candidates with high negatives: Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli. It’s far from clear that a Libertarian candidate would fare as well in 2017.

One reason for Libertarians’ limited electoral success might be be that the party duopolists have stacked the rules of the game against third-party upstarts. Strict balloting rules compelling third-party candidates to gather 10,000 signatures to run for statewide office is one example. Gerrymandering safe districts for Republicans and Democrats is another.

A third explanation for limited Libertarian Party success in Virginia is the widespread perception that Libertarians are a fringe group of crackpots and dope smokers preoccupied with nutty ideas such as legalizing drugs, abolishing the Federal Reserve Bank, or eliminating the military. Many voters regard Libertarians as dreamy utopians with little inclination to engage in the nitty-gritty work of governing. I believe that view is unfair, but without question the view must be overcome.

To achieve electoral success in Virginia, Libertarians must identify issues that will gain traction with the huge number of “natural libertarians” out there and build a broad coalition of like-minded constituencies. They also must advocate a politics of the possible. Repealing the income tax, a fiscal impossibility in Virginia, is not an option. Libertarians have a lot of thinking to do. While news is slow during the holiday season, I will sketch out some ideas.

2016 a Big Year for Libertarian Party

Jessica Abbott, a Libertarian, won a seat on Virginia Beach City Council, but the Libertarian Party still faces obstacles in Virginia.

Jessica Abbott, a Libertarian, won a seat on Virginia Beach City Council.

Unless you read the LP News, you probably didn’t realize that 2016 was a record-breaking year for the Libertarian Party. The national news media tuned out Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson after he suffered his “Aleppo moment,” and his poll numbers fell in the last weeks as the race tightened between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Yet he still won nearly 4.4 million votes — more than three times the previous number garnered by the Libertarian candidate in 2012.

Other third-party candidates have fared better — anyone remember George Wallace and Ross Perot? But the Libertarian Party represents a movement that is bigger and longer lasting than any one candidate. Nearly 500,000 Americans are registered as Libertarians, a new high. Nearly 1.7 million votes were cast for Libertarian candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, also a new high. In Alaska, the Libertarian candidate won 30% of the vote, beating the Democratic candidate. Dues-paying member have passed the 20,000 mark, the highest level since 2005. (See the Libertarian Party’s take on the outcome here.)

Among other signs of progress, the Libertarian Party now has presidential ballot access in 37 states — more states than after any election in the party’s history. Ballot access means the party’s presidential candidate in 2020 will automatically qualify to run in those states without the necessity of accumulating enough signatures to qualify. The $760,000 it cost the Libertarians to get on the ballots of all 50 states this year may be pocket change to Republicans and Democrats, but it looms large for an independent party.

Libertarians made progress in Virginia, too. Libertarian Jessica Abbott won 59% of the vote in a nonpartisan race for Virginia Beach City Council. Noting that city spending has increased 90% over the past decade while median household income has remained flat, she opposed a proposed $343 million light rail project in the city. As a certified flood insurance agent, she also promised to use her expertise to help Virginia Beach cope with coastal flooding.

Another Virginia Beach Libertarian, Robert Dean, lost the race but won a healthy 41% of the vote.

Libertarians face a challenge in running a candidate for statewide office next year. Virginia has one of the toughest ballot-access laws in the country, a provision that helps cement into place the dominance of the Republican-Democratic duopoly. To become “recognized,” a party must win at least 10% of the vote in a statewide race. Democrats and Republicans have no difficulty reaching that threshhold, so Democratic and Republican candidates get free ballot access. By contrast, Libertarians (and any other independent or third-party candidate) must acquire 10,000 signatures.

As a practical matter, third-party candidates must get more than 10,000 because the signatures must be verified by state electoral authorities, and it is common for a significant percentage to be thrown out. A rule-of-thumb cost to hire signature gatherers is about $2.50 per sign-up. That translates into potential expenditures of $25,000. Again, that is pocket money for Democrats and Republicans but a hurdle for Libertarians. Robert Sarvis, who won 6.5% of the vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election, making him the most successful Libertarian Party candidate in Virginia history, spent only $220,000 on his entire campaign. (Terry McAuliffe spent $38 million.)

The movement to reform partisan gerrymandering of Virginia’s electoral districts has gained big momentum in recent years. Virginians who value increased competition in the political realm should support reform of ballot access as well.

How to Waste Millions: Run Political Ads on Television

Political ads on TV not worth the moneyAs I was standing in line for an hour-and-a-half at the Tuckahoe Elementary School voting station yesterday, I had the good fortune to strike up a conversation with the gentlemen next in line: John Adams, the recently retired chairman of the Martin Agency. Naturally, the conversation turned to the presidential election.

Adams opined that the vast majority of the money spent on television advertising this election season was wasted. There is little substantive that can be said in 30-second slots, and voters have learned to tune them out, he said. Candidates continue to invest in TV ads because political consultants make tons of money placing them.

His observations yesterday were prescient. Hillary Clinton outspent Donald Trump on political ads, mostly negative, by a massive margin, and to the astonishment of the television pundits she lost. Trump, by contrast, focused on generating “earned media” (news) through his tweets.

Adams is not a big fan of Twitter and other social media, which is thinks is superficial. He prefers “long-form” formats that allow the thoughtful discussion of policy issues, although he admits that thought pieces may not be to everyone’s taste.

Despite its drawbacks, TV ads can reach a large audience quickly. One suggestion from the man who presided over the Martin Agency’s creation of the Geico gecko and cave man ads: Television can be used to present positive messages that are difficult to peddle to a cynical press corps. But there is less utility in running attack ads. Reporters love nothing better than a cat fight, so it’s usually easy to inject negative spin about an opponent in the media. Whatever the ultimate solution, he says, the millions of ad dollars squandered in 2016 could have been spent to better effect.

— JAB