Adam Sharp -- April 20th, 2010
Guest blogger Adam Sharp’s analysis and prediction for today’s Republican primary contest. Disclosure: Sharp consulted on Kai Degner’s 2008 City Council campaign. The author also attended Cornerstone Church with the Wilt family for 10 years.
The first thank-you note Tony Wilt should write is to Ted Byrd.
Wilt could have won the Republican nomination for the 26th House of Delegates seat on his own; he has charisma, sincerity and a history of public involvement free of controversy or political in-fighting. A positive campaign, backed by the endorsements of several leading Republican figures in the 26th District and the wider area, would have proven successful.
But Wilt’s allies botched that story.
Instead of a positive narrative featuring a conservative Christian businessman who looks like he belongs in a saddle, the atmosphere surrounding the Republican nomination vote Tuesday is toxic. An attempted power play by county Republicans, represented by local real estate mogul David Lee, failed and breathed life into the campaign of attorney John Elledge.
Elledge is no party outsider; he served as former Delegate Glenn “The Sheriff” Weatherholtz’s legislative aide and also held the position of unit chairman for the Harrisonburg Republicans. In 2004 he began running to succeed his boss, but stepped aside for then-School Board member Matt Lohr. Lohr went on to beat Rockingham Democrat Lowell Fulk, whose 2003 campaign against Weatherholtz was surprisingly close and likely prompted Weatherholtz’s retirement.
But this year, provided with the opportunity to seize the populist mantle, Elledge used the party rulebook to out-maneuver the county Republicans and secured a second polling place in Harrisonburg. Elledge has since gone on to paint the campaign as one in which the people fight back against a party machine intent on “fixing” the nomination. This message has gained traction in Harrisonburg, exposing the second blunder by Wilt’s allies in the county.
The aggressive move to limit the number of polling places was presented in the media as coming about due to Rockingham’s votes on the Republican 26th District Committee having more weight. Intentionally or not, the story of this election now includes a significant city versus county dynamic. City residents are more likely to believe the nomination process has not been fair, and are therefore more open to a candidate who calls for transparency and greater participation.
Neither side of this coin looked good for Wilt. On one side he has been lumped together with the local Republican Party establishment, prompting gossip that the only two votes that matter are those of Senator and Mrs. Obenshain. On the other side his base in the county is not as motivated as Elledge’s base in the city, which rightly or wrongly feels undervalued. Heads Elledge wins, tails Wilt loses.
And then along came Byrd.
Sage observers of the district knew Byrd could not win. He has never had to win a party nomination, which requires a loyal following and skills with a knife, and he had not laid any groundwork for a potential campaign outside of Harrisonburg. A family fortune can buy mailers, but it does not guarantee a political victory. Mark Warner’s money couldn’t buy a win in 1996 against John Warner, and Mark spent several more years traveling around Virginia before he won his campaign for governor in 2001. Byrd lost the moment he announced.
But so had Elledge. A Republican electorate split between motivated city residents and more numerous but unmotivated county residents provided Elledge with a path to victory. But having another candidate from Harrisonburg makes Elledge’s task far too difficult. Without additional time to create sharper distinctions between himself and his opponents, Elledge will not be able to find enough votes.
Not that he hasn’t been trying. The elimination of the pledge to support Republican candidates in the fall allowed Elledge to solicit votes from independents and Democrats from the city. The re-imposition of the pledge may not dissuade all non-Republicans from voting Tuesday evening, but with turnout unlikely to reach 2.5% of the district’s registered voters, Elledge cannot afford to have any potential votes staying home because we are instructed to “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.'”
Wilt will win due to Elledge and Byrd each taking votes from the other in Harrisonburg. In one sense that’s a victory. In another sense, however, Wilt also loses because his win will be tainted by the actions of his allies early in the race. The only way to win well is to win clean.
Do any of the three Republican candidates offer Kai Degner an easier path to victory? No. It does not matter who wins the Republican nomination Tuesday; Degner has to run a perfect campaign in a district where the Democratic base is more likely to watch Rachel Maddow than to read the Daily News-Record.
The Republican strategy against Degner will be the same no matter who the nominee is: Take the bloom off the rose. Republicans know that undecided voters care what other people think of them. Social pressure matters in an election. The strategy against Degner will consist of tying him to JMU students, President Obama and immigrants. Undecided voters, especially undecided county voters, will find it difficult to defend voting for a “rioter,” “socialist” or a “foreigner.” The safe choice will be to give in to peer pressure and vote Republican.
I’m not saying Degner can’t win; in a world where Scott Brown is a U.S. Senator, one does not say such things. But it is very likely that the winner of Tuesday’s election will be the next delegate from the 26th District, and the local Republican Party has done everything it can to limit the number of people who have a say in that choice.
Adam Sharp is a former resident of Harrisonburg and has consulted on several local political campaigns.