General Assembly elections looming this fall,
Virginia Democrats find themselves with few strong
issues to campaign on.
recent years, the legislative session that preceded
the election of members of the General Assembly was
partisan and contentious. The two major
parties jockeyed for political advantage during the
session, hoping to tee up a winning set of issues
for the election.
2003 session will be remembered as a particularly
bitter one, but with fewer substantive differences
than in most. Among the matters causing the
greatest contention this year are the election of
judges and the confirmation of gubernatorial
appointments to boards and commissions. To the
surprise of many, the heat generated by these
personnel matters has far exceeded what was
generated over billion-dollar fiscal issues.
difficult at midpoint in the 2003 session to see
what the fall campaigns will look like. The
success to date of the social conservatives in
pushing their agenda hardly means that abortion,
guns and school choice won’t play a role in the
coming elections, but the very success of these
proposals may serve to eliminate some campaign
issues unless those opposing these measures run
anti-gun and pro-abortion candidates against
incumbent Republicans. At most, that would
create a handful of competitive races for Democrats.
more likely line of attack by Democrats challenging
Republican incumbents is to run on the General
Assembly’s failure to raise taxes to fund public
schools. Gov. Mark R. Warner undercut that
strategy when he chose not to ask for a tax hike for
dominant issue in state politics in 2002 — raising
taxes for roads and other transportation projects
— is barely on the screen in 2003. That is
no doubt due to the decisive voter rejection of the
ballot measures in northern Virginia and Hampton
Roads to raise the sales tax to fund transportation.
the Democrats will campaign on a pledge to try once
again to amend the state Constitution to allow a governor
to succeed himself. That’s not the kind of
issue that will pump up Democratic turnout.
are the Democrats to do at a time when they face a
generation in the minority in the legislature
because of shifting demographics and the congealing
of political attitudes generally favoring
Republicans? Their best strategy may be to
wait for Republicans to self-destruct.
Warner himself has struggled with the same problem.
His decision to function as a bipartisan executive,
attempting to work with Republicans who control both
houses of the General Assembly, has proven to be a
bust. It has also deprived Virginia Democrats
of the most effective means they hope to have in the foreseeable future to produce a political agenda
to compete with Republicans.
of this suggests that the fall campaigns of
Democrats will not be run on broad themes and a
statewide agenda. The contests are likely to
focus non issues peculiar
to each race. The average voter, hearing few
uplifting messages, will find politics excessively negative and
hardly worth following.
two Democrats with the greatest capacity to change
this — Gov. Warner and Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine —
have demonstrated no willingness to do so. A
bold move by either or both is full of political
risk. But until one of them picks the right
fights with Republicans and offers a truly inspiring
agenda to the voters, a few opportunistic Democratic
challengers will employ sniper tactics against
the most vulnerable Republican incumbents.
-- February 10, 2003