January 28, 2018
Yesterday afternoon I went to see the forum for Republican candidates for the Sixth Congressional District at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, about 15 miles north of Staunton. It was the first real political event I had attended in over a year. Since I no longer have any affiliation with the Republican Party, I was merely there as an observer. Given the strongly Republican makeup of the Sixth District, it is almost certain that whoever wins the Republican nomination will win the general election in November.
The sidewalks outside the Plecker Center at BRCC were lined with GOP 6th District candidate signs, and those of Cynthia Dunbar were by far the most numerous. The conference room inside was nearly packed with over 200 attendees and campaign workers for the various candidates. As far as I could tell, the only journalist present was Bob Stuart of the News Virginian, based in Waynesboro. I saw nothing about this very important event on either WHSV-Channel 3 (based in Harrisonburg) or in the News Leader (based in Staunton).
The reason this forum was so important was that the Republican 6th District Committee decided to nominate a successor candidate to Bob Goodlatte by means of a convention (to be held at James Madison University in Harrisonburg on May 19) rather than a primary election. Adding to the controversy is the fact that only a plurality will be required to win the nomination, meaning that whichever candidate gets the most number of votes on the first ballot will automatically win, even if it is far less than 50 percent. For more on this, see the News Leader.
The man reputed to be behind that maneuver is Sixth Congressional District Chairman Scott Sayre, who gained fame by running a brass-knuckle campaign against incumbent State Senator Emmett Hanger in 2007. (See my June 12, 2007 blog post to refresh your memory on all that.) The nomination procedures decided upon by the 6th C.D. Committee are believed to favor the populist "anti-Establishment" candidate Cynthia Dunbar, and Delegate Ben Cline (one of the front-runners) has taken issue with them.
I personally favor nomination by conventions, in part because primary elections in effect create an "official" two-party system, artificially restricting voter choices. True, conventions tend to nominate more ideologically hard-line candidates compared to primaries, which is why the GOP right wing is so hostile to relative moderates within the party who can count on crossover voting to win the nomination. Conventions would do away with that practice, and thereby make candidates more directly accountable to the parties to which they claim to belong.
On May 19, delegates will presumably choose from among eight candidates, which seems absurdly excessive. (I would expect some of them to drop out between now and then, as part of the normal political horse-trading and jockeying for position among the front-runners.) Cynthia Dunbar is the clear favorite, and Ben Cline and Chaz Haywood are the other serious candidates.
Ben Cline: Currently representing the 24th District in the Virginia House of Delegates, a seat he has held since November 2002. He later earned his law degree and worked as a prosecuting attorney in Harrisonburg for a few years. (See bencline.com.) At the forum, he aligned himself with President Trump by seeking to "Make America great again" and defending the Second Amendment. (DISCLAIMER: I know Ben personally, though we haven't been in touch for at least a year or two.)
Cynthia Dunbar: Currently serving as National Republican Committeewoman, a position she has held since 2016. According to Wikipedia, she served on the Texas State Board of Education, getting involved in controversies over creationism and the separation of church and state. She later moved to Virginia, where she worked as co-chair of the Ted Cruz presidential campaign in 2016. Her campaign flyer begins with "Establishment Beware," as though she were somehow not part of the Establishment. She too wants to "Make America great again" and "drain the swamp," another favorite slogan of President Trump. At the forum, she warned that our republic is in grave danger and emphasized the U.S. Constitution as the fundamental guarantor of American freedom. It was an impressive presentation, but she came across as perhaps unduly alarmist and strident, especially during the question-and-answer period. For example, when asked how she would deal with the problem of gridlock in Congress, she said she would confront any colleagues who oppose her, and campaign against them in their home districts. Wow!?
Chaz Haywood: Currently serving as Clerk of the Circuit Court in Harrisonburg, and before that as the local liaison to Congressman Bob Goodlatte. His campaign flyer highlights his military background but is rather vague on what he stands for, aside from defending the principles that make possible the American Dream. At the forum, he came across as poised, confident, and intelligent, though he steered away from controversial issues. From my point of view, not emphasizing support for the Trump agenda is a positive aspect.
Ed Justo: An attorney specializing in immigration matters, based in Harrisonburg. He impressed me with his earnest, forthright manner, taking issue with some of the harsh anti-immigrant sentiment that has been expressed by some Republicans. [He even defended DACA.] That took guts! Otherwise, he talked about the importance of business-friendly policies that create new job opportunities.
Kathryn Lewis: A small business owner in the [Bedford County]
Roanoke area, she has lived in Virginia her whole life (27 years). She pledged to only serve four terms if elected, and would hold forums open to the public, drawing a contrast between her and the incumbent, Bob Goodlatte.
Elliot Pope: A building contractor in Lynchburg, he said that freedom is in danger and that we must uphold the Constitution. (It was a milder version of the same points made by Ms. Dunbar.) He pointed in particular to elitism and over-regulation as threats to our country.
Mike Desjadon: He said his job involves dealing with health insurance, and he wants to fix that problem and then leave Congress and then go back to his plow. (I assume that means he owns a farm, but I'm not sure.) He provided no specifics or general principles to guide the fixing of the health care system, however.
Douglas Wright: A dentist, he emphasized the harm and erosion of choice resulting from Obamacare. He said the Republican Party is based on strong ideals, and that if its members only live up to those ideals, they could build a 60- or 70-percent majority, rather than the bare 51-percent majority they have at present. He is the oldest candidate [in this race].
It occurred to me that the plethora of newcomer candidates may be a tactic to dilute the opposition to the party insiders' preferred candidate, Cynthia Dunbar. If so, unless the relative "moderates" in the party can work out an agreement to rally around either Ben Cline or Chaz Haywood, the nomination would seem to be heavily stacked in Ms. Dunbar's favor.
The reason this usual situation came about is that two days after the Virginia elections last November, incumbent Rep. Bob Goodlatte announced that he would not seek reelection. He is presently serving his 13th term in the House of Representatives, notwithstanding his original (1992) campaign pledge to only serve three terms in Congress. The 2017 election was a disaster for Republicans in Virginia, widely believed to reflect opposition to President Trump, and signals a possible sharp reversal in the partisan balance of power in the congressional midterm elections to be held nationwide this coming November. Thanks to his seniority, Goodlatte has great power as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, but that advantage will disappear once his replacement is sworn in one year from now. See the Washington Post. I admire Congressman Goodlatte as a solid, no-nonsense conservative, but he seemed unable to cope with the rising storm of right-wing populism that brought about the Trump presidency.
This marks my first blog about politics since last February, a hiatus of nearly a year. During this time, the United States government has lurched from crisis to crisis resulting from the erratic and often ugly leadership style of President Donald Trump. He has ripped to shreds the conventional norms of political behavior, and has fostered an authoritarian cult of personal loyalty. Indeed, the very fate of constitutional government itself is now being questioned for the first time since the American Civil War. Given the badly fractured state of the American body politic, prospects for constructive dialogue over national policy issues have shrunken drastically, making the effort to advance understanding almost futile. On a personal level, I freely confess to feeling depressed and wondering whether it's too late for any political involvement (such as blogging) to serve any useful purpose. In particular, I am mortified by what has happened to the Republican Party to let things reach such an awful state. But as things continue to go from bad to worse, I suppose I should speak up lest someone accuse me of doing nothing in this moment of extreme national peril.