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Politics as Usual?

by Tony M.

What did I do this past weekend? I sat in and watched the Republican Party in my state hold a convention to nominate its state-wide ticket for November’s election: Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General. About 8,000 delegates were there, plus sundry speakers, media, protestors, etc.

Things that were not a surprise: (1) the word “conservative” was used almost as frequently as “Republican.” Here in this state, the GOP party faithful are not in the least bit afraid of being tarred with the C word. It was, actually, a significant conservative success to hold a convention rather than a primary, as the primary tends (around here) to allow the conservative vote be split between 4 good conservatives, and the plurality vote ends up going to the “moderate” RINO who can garner 30% of the vote in a primary (in part because the primary does not require voters to be Republican to weigh in on the Republican candidate – you can weigh in on either party’s candidates).

(2) A conservative won the nomination for governor. Well, he ran unopposed – that too was a substantial effect of using a convention rather than the primary method. The primary demands enormous amounts of money in advertising etc, and this automatically favors candidates who have a political “machine” in place. The current Lt. Governor, who has a good machine, wanted to have a primary, whereas the current attorney general (significantly more popular with the party faithful) probably has a lesser organization and would have been playing catch-up the whole way. When he managed to get the party to use a convention, the Lt. Governor threw in the towel and didn’t even enter his name in the ring. The resulting “selection” of nominee (voice vote) for governor became a victory lap for the unopposed current attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.

(3) This is the first time I can recall a conservative nominee for governor using the expression “principled conservatism” to explain and distinguish his approach to governing, at least the first time I have heard it where I think he actually meant it. I certainly never thought that G. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” meant anything like “principled conservative”, even though there is nothing in principle that prevents a conservative from being compassionate.

(4) A relative conservative won the nomination for attorney general. I say “relative conservative” out of not having enough data to work with, not out of a conclusion about his actual politics.

Things that were a surprise: (1) Out of 7 candidates, the only complete outsider to political machines won the nomination for Lt. Governor. That was E. W. Jackson, a Protestant minister, an attorney, and a former radio show host. In addition to not having any political organization to speak of, he had raised the least amount of money of all 7 candidates, and not only was he an outsider in that sense of political machinery, he was also an outsider in terms of having held office. He has never held any public office.

(2) At the same time the voters were leaning toward an outsider for Lt. Governor, they picked a true insider for attorney general: Mark Obenshain. He was raised in politics as a child, with a very politically significant father, and has been in the state senate for 10 years. I was surprised that the voters would chose that combination.

(3) The convention was pretty poorly run, somewhere on a C- or D for a grade. They took notably too long to take votes, and FAR too long to tally votes. They apparently didn’t really plan for 4 rounds of voting for the Lt. Governor nomination, even though anyone with a shred of familiarity with conventions should have figured it out. They didn’t plan suitable activity / entertainment during the breaks for counting the votes. For instance, initially they only gave the candidates time for a 4 minute “introduction” and a 7 minute speech before the voting took place. That was hardly enough time to learn a lot about them (delegates should have done their homework beforehand, but the information available wasn’t complete.) During the down-time for counting the first vote they should have had the candidates come out with more developed material. Especially after they narrowed down the field to 5, and then to 3 candidates. While they were counting the second-to-last vote, they could have held a debate between the 3 still in contention at that point.

(4) They needed a much better system for handing out ballots, collecting them, and for counting them. I assume they had machines to do the counting, but does it really take machines 2 full hours to count 8,000 ballots? Only if they have too few machines doing the work, which was bad planning. If you have 10 machines, and feed in one ballot per 2 seconds, it only takes 30 minutes. Even if you have to do a recount, that’s another 30 minutes.

(5) A vote didn’t count as a vote. That is to say, there was some complicated weighting system that modified the weight of votes according to the proportion of delegates sent by a county or city to the number of Republican votes that county or city had in the past presidential or gubernatorial election. If a county turned out a lot of delegates, that gave them more votes but not necessarily a lot more weighted votes, which actually decided the issue.

There was a little bit of the more-or-less expected skullduggery at the cross-roads – it was politics, after all. They failed to give the vote-count or the ranking of the candidates from the 1st vote before the delegates had to cast the second round of voting for Lt. Gov. They only identified the bottom 2 candidates to drop them off the list. That’s not cricket. There was also a bit of fluffery of photocopied messages of “X endorses candidate Y” being delivered around, including supposedly one losing candidate throwing his support to the second-place guy, which he didn’t actually do. You expect some amount of that, so it’s not really a surprise. All in all, anyone with any familiarity with politics would have known that stuff was coming and taken it into account. I didn’t hear of anything truly shady / underhanded / dirty-politics for the convention.

My take-away: (A) the differences between the ranked outcomes in the race for Lt. Governor were sometimes just a couple dozen votes. If one family had not pushed a number of their friends and neighbors to attend, one of the candidates would not necessarily have made it out of the first round into the second, or out of the second into the third. And it didn’t take a huge amount of volunteer time or campaign money to win the nomination. So it matters under what form the democratic system runs. And given that it matters, getting involved at the local level by talking to friends about it and listening to them can actually affect the outcome.

(B) There remain a lot of decent, wholesome people in (this part of) America, even if they are often outnumbered. I am relatively convinced that E.W. Jackson won the nomination for L.G. because he spoke to a perceived need for morality – not just morality as applied narrowly to just administration of law, but more generally. There are practicing Christians who want their government at the highest levels to “look like them” not in terms of visual appearance, but in terms of underlying focus on the important things in life, which includes a normal Christian vision of “the common good”. He also made people feel good about _wanting_ government to be small, restrained, etc., not having to excuse themselves for feeling that way. E.W. Jackson, by the way, is black, and he won the nomination from an overwhelmingly white crowd of conservatives in the South. Anyone who thinks that racial prejudice is still the same grievous problem it was in 1950 hasn’t seen reality lately.

Comments (12)

Politics as Usual?

Nope. I think the GOP in your has done a better job than the usual politics.

Principled conservativism is of a far superior moral quality than "politics as usual" liberalism.

Yes, I think better than usual. Still with quite a ways to go before really top notch, but given that we are in the real world, that's OK. We have yet to see if the GOP can get their nominee elected governor. If so, I would expect some rather interesting battles between the state capital and Washington.

This sounds like a good convention, with a much better outcome than we had for our presidential selections last year.

I certainly never thought that G. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” meant anything like “principled conservative”, even though there is nothing in principle that prevents a conservative from being compassionate.

In my naivte, I thought Bush's "compassionate conservative" meant a new defense of conservative as the real compassionate choice, I did not realize it was an attempt to redefine the term and marginalize real conservatives.

I still miss Dick Obenshain.

Re Things that were a surprise #5, it sounds complicated, but there is a lot of thought and history behind it. I'm glad that is one thing that hasn't changed since I was last a convention delegate. (Ollie North, Mike Farris, exciting and hopeful days.)

David, I am interesting to hear the history, or at least the idea, behind the weighting. I can guess at a kind of vague notion of it: we don't really want one county or city to "pack" the vote by turning out (for the convention) in vast numbers that are unrepresentative of how they generally vote in the elections. Seems fair to say that each jurisdiction's representation in convention should reflect, somehow, the way they act the rest of the time. I just don't know the details.

Anymouse, in order to get the kind of results we got, first you have to have a conservative in excellent running position, THEN you have to have a preponderance of people who are willing to vote conservative and who make the effort to figure out which candidate really is a conservative. And you still have to have a certain amount of luck. I would like to know, though, whether the state GOP can use a convention to determine the state delegates for GOP presidential nominee, rather than running a primary election in the state, or whether the national GOP determines that process. I am not sure how it would work out, but I suspect it would be different than a primary in a significant number of states.

Just so we are balanced: some people contend that what they get in a convention approach is someone who appeals to the party faithful, and almost by definition that person is un-electable in the general election because they don't appeal to any middle-of-the-roaders. We'll just have to see if that's what happens here. In this case, we have an almost best-case scenario for running a true conservative against the Dem's nominee - they have picked Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chairman who apparently has never really done anything substantive in the world other than run political organizations, and has never held public office. Theoretically, Cuccinelli's win should be a no-brainer, though with politics you never know. If McAuliffe can locate some skeleton in the closet, he might pull off an upset.

As you note, Virginia has open primaries, and part of the value of a convention is that it's harder for the other party to affect things.

But it's not that hard. Not too long after that '94 convention, my local party unit had an "open" process for officer elections. We, the conservative incumbents, planned for and obtained excellent turnout; but we were swamped by a wave of voters we'd never seen at any of our monthly meetings. Movement conservatives out, Republicans For Choice affiliates in.

The sort of delegates we sent down to the state convention after our blowout loss to the Ann Stone wing would have been... different. (To namedrop for a moment: the pro-choice leadership helped drive away Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute; Marjorie Danenfelser of the Susan B Anthony List; the then-director of the House Pro-Life Caucus; various other people whose names would be familiar to many; and of course me.) One way to control for that sort of swing in leadership (and thus in delegates) is to grant voting power based not on short-term stuff like how many Arlingtonians take the bus to Richmond, but on how many votes for Republicans Arlington County produces. Arlington remains a Democrat powerhouse; the local GOP unit continues to be small, and if anything even less influential than twenty years ago. So the real voting power granted Arlington's 120 delegates to Richmond would have been minimal; and I would not have it any other way.

Are you implying that Jackson is a good person? He's a conspiracy theorist who has accused Obama of viewing the world from a "Muslim perspective" (whatever that is), and his statements about gays should make all reasonable Christians uncomfortable. Modern "conservatives" like Jackson have more in common with with John Birch than they do with Burke, and they are destroying this country.

David, the picture you paint reminds me of why I keep thinking that what we really need is to rid the country of having 2 completely dominant parties with many sub-factions thereof, and have at least 6 major parties each of which regularly will pull in at least 7 or 8% or the vote, and each often enough pulls in 30%. I think that Madison's theory, as expounded in the Federalist Papers, for the way "faction" prevents some of the worst effects of democracy, is undermined by the 2 major parties with no close contender for 3rd or 4th. I don't think it works as a separate faction if the pro-life conservative vote has to claw its way to being heard even within the GOP, much less in the general public.

First past the post politics inevitably leads to the creation of a two party system, Duverger's law has been proven correct over and over again. The only way to change the two party system is to radically alter our electoral structure, and there is essentially no chance of that happening given how difficult it is to amend the constitution. The fact that the congressional leaders who would have to help us make such a transition rely on the current system for their jobs doesn't help.

Virginia would be an excellent study case in why we appear to be stuck with the two current parties. When the national Democrats started going off the rails, conservative Democrats like Harry Flood Byrd Jr became Independents; they were not welcomed by Linwood Holton's Republicans. Even Democrats who couldn't be tarred as part of the Byrd organization like Congressman Dan Daniel of Danville- the last good Democrat, imo- simply remained conservative Democrats. Lots of names and concepts for new parties were bandied about. Conservatives were wanted by neither party. Why did a third party not develop? The iron was as hot as it's likely to get. The moment is gone- the Beltway monster has sprawled all the way out to Culpeper, and a solid third of the Old Dominion is just a suburb of DC, beholden to the Democrats (who will win all the votes despite the many craven Republican pols needed to create our Leviathan). So- why? Heartbroken worn-out native Virginians who fervently wish Texas Republicans were a tenth as conservative as they're reputed to be and who already misspent part of their youths as Libertarian Party activists would really like to believe something more authentically conservative could emerge from the blunt fact that Lindsey Graham really does represent the heart and soul of the Republican Party. But we are not holding what little breath we still possess...

Dunsany, it could be done at the state level: collapse 3 legislative districts into 1, and then seat the 3 highest vote-getters in the 3 expanded district. You automatically get room for 3 parties right away. Even if you don't make it that a party can only put up one candidate for the district. Or, you can keep the NAME of all 3 districts, but simply allow every voter to vote for any candidate for the legislature out of all 3 districts (but each voter only gets one vote, of course).

Can it happen? It could in a very independent-minded state. Probably a small population state to begin with. I understand that the elected officials were elected in the current system, but conservative officials cannot realistically think that they have a lock on the office just because they won once. If enough of them can push along with enough libertarians, a few true independents, a handful of totally disgruntled Democrats who cannot stand their own leadership even though they cannot get a welcome from Republicans, and a couple of left-wing nut jobs from green parties and the like, you could build a coalition big enough to do it. Likely? No. Possible? Yes.

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