Every political party has certain members who cause more trouble for their own side than the other side.
Del.-elect Marie March, R-Floyd County, has signaled she intends to be that troublemaker for fellow Republicans.
If you’re a Republican – at least a Republican who would like to see the new Republican majority in the House of Delegates last more than a single term – the most alarming thing that March said in a recent podcast interview wasn’t her disclosure that she’d hired a strategist who was convicted on federal corruption charges and pardoned by then-President Donald Trump. (They’ve since parted ways.) It wasn’t her casual musing that there might be communists in the General Assembly and that she plans to out them.
Instead, it was this: “The Republican Party in Richmond and the people who have been elected, the caucus, they want to continue to play it very moderate because they want to continue to win the next few years of elections across the whole state … no matter what, they want all Republicans to win. So they want to be very cautious. I have a different viewpoint. I feel like voters put us here to get something accomplished. That’s the reason there was a red wave and we need to fulfill those campaign promises.”
Now, fulfilling campaign promises is a good thing. However, here’s why this philosophy is a problem for fellow Republicans. When the General Assembly convenes next week, Republicans will hold a 52-48 margin in the House of Delegates but are still in the minority in the state Senate, where Democrats have a 21-19 edge. If you’re a Republican leader, your No. 1 goal is to preserve that majority in the House in the next election (and ideally expand it) and also win a majority in the Senate. That means you don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes those goals. March, who has “a different viewpoint,” could jeopardize those goals. So could any other Republicans who share her hardline views.
Just because Republicans have narrow control of the House (and, of course, the governorship) doesn’t mean they can do anything they want. Mathematically speaking, they can only do what they can get through the Democratic-controlled state Senate (where the real obstacle to Republican bills will be committees where Democrats can more easily strangle things they don’t like than out on the narrowly divided Senate floor). Politically speaking, they can only do things that don’t provoke a voter backlash that would lead to them being turned out of power. Or, more accurately, they should only do things that don’t provoke a voter backlash that would lead to them being turned out of power.
This is understandably frustrating for some conservatives, who feel, by golly, they have a (partial) majority, they should ram everything they want through the House and see what happens. On that score, they can commiserate with their liberal counterparts in Congress, who can’t understand why they can’t pass all the things they want. Be they conservatives in Virginia, or liberals in Washington, these are all people who don’t understand math.
In the case of those liberals in Washington, the math that matters is this: Democrats may hold the presidency and the House but they don’t control the Senate, and even a tie vote in the Senate requires the vote of the most problematic Democrat – Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Liberals can rage against Manchin all they want but could they win a Senate election in West Virginia? No, so where would they go to win another Senate seat? They tried last year in Maine and North Carolina and won neither of those. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and Manchin is theirs. Deal with it. Or, in this case, deal with him and figure out what he can accept because surely something is better than nothing and until they accept this reality then nothing is what they’re going to get. Now some so-called progressives are talking about challenging President Biden for the nomination in 2024. He barely won in 2020, thanks to narrow victories in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Do they really think they could do better, either there or somewhere else? They are convinced they could, another sign that they don’t understand math very well. Or, for that matter, the country outside their liberal bubbles.
Here’s the essential point for both parties: Their majorities, when they happen, always rest on the places where the party is weakest. This is no different from other enterprises: A music promoter once told me that his profits depended not on a band’s hard-core fans, who weren’t enough to fill a venue, but the least-interested fan that he could persuade to buy a ticket.
Here’s what that means in Virginia terms: The new Republican majority in the House doesn’t depend on March, who won 65.6% of the vote in a district that, at the time, covered Floyd County and parts of Montgomery and Pulaski counties. That’s a district that will be Republican no matter what. Instead, the new Republican majority depends on the last three seats the party won, two of which were so close they were subject to recounts: Kim Taylor in the Petersburg area with 50.7%, Karen Greenlagh in Virginia Beach with 50.17% and A.C. Cordoza in Hampton with 49.36% (a third party candidate accounts for Cordoza winning with less than a majority).
All the perks that March will enjoy as a member of the majority party – and they are considerable – depend not just on her winning, but on Taylor, Greenlagh and Cordoza winning. If March wants to continue to win (more on this to come), she needs to make sure that Taylor, Greenlagh and Cordoza keep winning, too. Put another way, she shouldn’t do anything that jeopardizes their chances of winning. And, of course, here’s the hard part: The things that may please March’s constituents in Floyd County may not be what please Taylor’s constituents in the Petersburg area or Greenlagh’s constituents in Virginia Beach or Cordoza’s in Hampton. Unfortunately for Republicans, March says she doesn’t care about winning again. “I don’t care if I’m in one term or 10 terms,” she told podcaster Scott Bunn. “I’m there to do a job.” In some ways, many ways, that’s admirable. We all say we want politicians who are willing to cast votes without worrying about the electoral consequences.
That said, some electoral consequences do matter. What good does it do to provoke a political controversy over issue X – you can define X – if that measure can’t get passed through the state Senate anyway and the fallout from that controversy leads to voters kicking out the Republican House majority in the next election? Now, idealists – be they March in Virginia on the right or, say, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, in Washington on the left – may say it’s important to take a stand. Maybe. Ask Ocasio-Cortez about all this when her party is back in the minority. Or March, if she succeeds in stirring up some controversy that costs Republicans their majority in the Virginia House.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that it’s worth endangering a majority if you can enact some permanent change that can’t be undone. For instance, those Confederate statues that came down from Richmond’s Monument Avenue sure aren’t going back up. But other measures are more temporary. March cares deeply about guns and doesn’t like the gun laws that Democrats passed during their two years of complete control in Richmond. Maybe Republicans can get those repealed. But what happens when Democrats regain the majority? And given Virginia’s politics, it seems inevitable they will regain the majority eventually. They’ll just reinstate them. Are we going to see Virginia going back and forth on gun laws every two years or so? Maybe on cultural issues like that, there’s really no alternative. Some things simply can’t be compromised no matter how much we might wish they could be. Generally speaking, though, lasting change requires a lasting majority – or at least a long-enough lasting majority to make sure whatever institutional changes you want actually take hold. Otherwise, many of these measures are, to quote the “Bladerunner” character Roy Batty, “lost in time, like tears in the rain.”
So how can Republicans create a lasting majority in Richmond? Given the closely contested nature of Virginia politics, they probably can’t. Then again, neither can Democrats, as the past election just showed. So the term “lasting” isn’t quite the right word. Let’s look at the near-term politics.
Virginia is about to have something it hasn’t had in eight years: a Republican governor. This means Republican legislators have an opportunity to actually get their bills signed into law, provided they can get them passed. They also will have a Republican lieutenant governor, which means they can break ties in the state Senate in their favor, provided they can first get a tie vote. That means the leadership’s calculation has to be this: Be moderate enough over the next two years that you still might be able to persuade at least one Democratic senator to go along, and then hope you can win a Senate majority in 2023 and retain the one in the House. Then you’d have the trifecta where you really could pass anything you wanted (more or less). For goodness’ sake, don’t do anything crazy that causes people in those swing districts to think either a) “I didn’t vote for this person to do that, I’m not voting for him or her again” or b) “Gosh, I’m not sure I want Republicans to have total control, I’m going to hedge my bets and vote for a Democrat.” Voters say they don’t like gridlock but also are often wary of giving either party a blank check. (Democrats were reminded of this when the Senate results were counted in 2020 and they’ll be reminded even more forcibly in next year’s midterms.) You can bet that Republican firebrands such as March will be front and center in the Democratic campaign for the General Assembly in 2023, and not in a good way. She may not care; she may consider it a badge of honor. But the question isn’t what she or voters in her district think – it’s what voters in those swing districts think. (Here’s the bipartisan proof: Ocasio-Cortez is still a backbencher in Washington terms but Republicans treat her in their messaging as if she were the Democratic leader. There’s a reason for that. Likewise, Democrats pick out the craziest Republicans they can find, of which there are, regrettably, an unfortunately large and vocal number.)
So here’s the math Virginia Republican leaders are surely looking at: Under the new redistricting maps, 53 of 100 House districts are listed as having a Democratic majority, based on numbers from the 2017 attorney general’s race. Or 52, if you use the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race as your guide. Those may not be the best guide – Democratic numbers during the Trump years were inflated, Republican numbers depressed – but they were the most recent ones available to the mapmakers. Even under the model most favorable to Democrats, five of those 53 seats were won with less than 53% of the vote – so the point is, the new maps may have a slight Democratic tilt but it’s still quite possible for Republicans to win a majority in the House. The Senate maps are a little more favorable to the Democrats: 23 of 40 seats are rated Democratic, no matter which election is used as the baseline, with either two or four of them being districts that are 53% or less Democratic. The bottom line: The 2023 elections should be close but will be fought on terrain that slightly favors Democrats.
Let’s assume Republicans win all the districts where they are rated as having a majority, no matter how slight. This is no sure thing, of course, but for figuring purposes, let’s figure that. That means in the House, for Republicans to win a majority, they need to win three, maybe four seats rated slightly Democratic. Specifically, those would be District 41 (Blacksburg to Catawba, Glenvar and Bent Mountain, 50.6% Democratic), District 89 (Suffolk and Chesapeake, 51.1% Democratic), District 65 (Fredericksburg area, 51.2% Democratic) and District 97 (Virginia Beach, 52.6% Democratic). In the Senate, they’d need to win another four officially rated Democratic: District 24, (Williamsburg, Newport News, York County, 51.6% Democratic), District 16 (Henrico County, 52.3% Democratic), District 17 (Brunswick County to Portsmouth, 53.2% Democratic) and District 31 (Loudoun County, Fauquier County, 54.2% Democratic).
That means over the next two years Republicans can’t be concerned with what plays in Floyd County, but what plays in Fredericksburg and Fauquier County. Of course, it works the other way, too. Democrats can’t be just concerned about what plays in Great Falls, they need to calibrate their message to play in Glenvar if they really want to swing that swing district. Republicans, though, have the majority now, so they’ll be the ones setting the pace, but they can’t be setting a pace that backfires on them – which is why March is going to be a problem for them. Given her druthers, she’d try to pass things that a) won’t pass and b) might well cost Republicans their majority and c) might well cost them the chance of winning back the state Senate in two years. As a gun enthusiast, she should understand the concept of holding your fire, but that does not seem her way.
When parties win, especially when they win unexpectedly, as was the case with Republicans in November, there’s always the danger that they misread their mandate. March talks about “the reason there was a red wave,” but there are probably multiple reasons Republicans won in November and not all of them have to do with people liking Republicans. Some just have to do with people not wanting Terry McAuliffe again. Virginia was not quite as liberal as Democrats thought it was, but neither is it as conservative as Republicans such as March would like it to be. As Virginia Republicans set out to govern, they should be conservative in the most traditional sense of the word – they should be cautious. March won’t like that, but she’ll like a renewed Democratic majority in Richmond even less.