Australians held an election over the weekend – they believe in weekend elections – in which they kicked out the governing conservatives and installed a left-of-center government.
Both of our parties might find lessons in this election Down Under, although they may be lessons that neither likes.
A program note: Don’t be confused by media reports calling soon-to-be former Prime Minister Scott Morrison a Liberal. He is, indeed, a member of the Liberal Party of Australia, but keep in mind that things there are upside down. In Australia, the so-called Liberal Party is really the conservative party; the left-of-center party is called the Labor Party. Australians also call dinner “tea,” treat leftover brewers’ yeast as a national delicacy, and regard a cricket match that lasts less than five days of six hours a day to be a short match. To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to Morrison’s party simply as conservatives.
So, crickey, what’s the John Dory on how Australian liberals came out of woop woop and left the conservatives devo?
First, the bad news for our Republicans: Morrison was Australia’s version of Donald Trump. The Washington Post called the election “a personal rebuke” of Morrison’s “abrasive brand of leadership.” The Sydney Morning Herald, a bit closer to the scene, called Morrison a “bulldozer” whose “grand plan was to turn the party into a right-wing populist party” and “thought that dog-whistling against transgender kids was political genius.” Australians, commentators there say, simply grew tired of Morrison, and Labor leader Anthony Albanese seemed a reasonable alternative. The fact that Albanese didn’t seem very colorful was apparently considered something of an asset.
To that extent, Australia 2022 seems a bit like America 2020 – many voters who cast ballots for Joe Biden weren’t voting to endorse the Democratic agenda, they just wanted Trump gone and thought Biden seemed pretty harmless (especially if they didn’t give him a Democratic Senate). By that measure, maybe Australia’s election doesn’t portend anything; maybe it’s simply a lagging indicator.
Now, the bad news for Democrats: Morrison was hurt by inflation. When voters see prices going up, they tend to blame the party in power. In Australia this year, that meant conservatives. In the United States, that’s likely to mean Democrats this year. “By presiding over a fast-rising cost of living and higher interest rates, Morrison delivered the final insult to people on low and middle incomes,” writes Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald. “He wasn’t responsible for global inflation, but Australian voters held him accountable nonetheless.” To that extent, the election of a left-of-center government Down Under is bad news for our left-of-center party.
Of course, some lessons from Australia may not be translatable to our political system: One of the features of the Australian election was the surprising showing of what were called “teal independents” – teal being the color of their campaign materials in the color-coded political scheme. (Of course, we’re the ones who are backwards. In the rest of the world, red is the color of the left and blue is the color of the right.) These teal voters were moderate voters who were fed up with both parties, but animated by climate change (as opposed to the Green Party, which is also animated by climate change, but comes at things from the left). These teal independents ran strongest in formerly conservative districts, prompting one Labor Party leader to chortle “the teals are eating the Liberal Party alive.” The teals also benefited from Australia’s ranked-choice voting – something Virginia Republicans experimented with last year in their convention – and won enough seats that they may deny Albanese’s Labor Party a majority, forcing a coalition government. With that, these centrist voters both brought down a conservative government while possibly denying a liberal government complete freedom of action — although, at last report, Labor was just four seats short of a majority with 14 races still too close to call, so Labor is feeling more optimstic. Still, the teals have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with).
What’s all this mean for us? At the very least, they show us what’s possible – and what’s not – under an alternative political system. With that, I come to the big political news from our weekend: Fifth District Republicans have renominated Rep. Bob Good. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The vast majority of incumbents get renominated. Good also had the advantage of a convention, which always amplifies the voices of the party’s most intense activists – which in 5th District Republican politics means hard-core conservatives. Challenger Daniel Moy faulted Good for grandstanding in Washington but not accomplishing much; Good reveled in being “ultra-MAGA” (his term). Moy seemed a serious-minded candidate from a pre-Trumpian era but he probably never had a realistic chance in a convention. Good won 84.5% of the votes. (Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt was at the convention and filed this report.)
Could Good have won a primary? We’ll never know. Virginia Republicans have long been skeptical of primaries, the 5th District Republicans especially so. The 5th District is also a good example of how our politics have become more polarized. A recent survey ranked Good as the fifth least bipartisan member of Congress. Moy tried to make that an issue, but so did Good. Good said he didn’t go to Washington to work with Democrats but to defeat them. If you’re a conservative who believes that politics is a zero-sum enterprise, Good may be a fine representative, even if he does often find himself voting in the company of such strange characters as Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. If you’re a conservative who thinks bipartisanship isn’t such a bad thing, and might even be a desirable thing on occasion, then your choice is either to stay home, or vote for a Democrat. We have no ranked-choice voting and no teal independents. Our binary system helps produce candidates such as Good, who has suggested that the pandemic is a hoax because he doesn’t know anyone who has died from COVID.
The question now is whether the general election campaign – against Democrat Josh Throneburg – will be competitive or not. Let’s look at the numbers.
I analyzed this district back in January, not long after the Virginia Supreme Court signed off on a new redistricting. I’ve seen nothing since then to change my thinking, so feel free to read that full analysis. For those who just want the highlights, here they are:
The 5th District is officially rated as the third most competitive district in the state, the 2nd (now held by Democrat Elaine Luria) and the 7th (now held by Democrat Abigail Spanberger) being the most competitive.
Based on a composite of election returns from 2016 to 2020, the 2nd District in Hampton Roads is considered 49.6% Democratic, 48.4% Republican, so a 1.2% Democratic tilt.
The 7th District, now moved into the Piedmont between Richmond and Northern Virginia, is rated 52.3% Democratic, 45.7% Republican, for a 6.6% Democratic margin
The 5th is put at 53.0% Republican, 45.2% Democratic, a 7.8% Republican tilt.
For what it’s worth, the other two districts in this part of Virginia are much more decidedly Republican. The 6th District – where Republican incumbent Ben Cline faces a June 21 primary challenge from Merritt Hale, with the winner facing Democrat Jennifer Lewis – is rated 59.4% Republican and 38.6% Democratic. That’s a 20.8% Republican advantage.
The 9th District – where Republican incumbent Morgan Griffith faces Democrat Taysha DeVaughan – is described as 67.7% Republican and 30.7% Democratic, a 37% Republican advantage.
If you look at just the 2020 election, the numbers don’t change much, except in the 9th, where the margin was 70.2% Republican, 28.3% Democratic.
Of course, we don’t pick members of Congress based on trends, we elect them based on elections. Still, the question is whether Throneburg can run counter to the district’s recent electoral history to defeat Good.
While campaigning for the nomination, Moy said that “Josh Throneburg offers a real challenge to Bob Good” on the grounds that Throneburg is “moderate Democrat who is a pastor.” Did Moy really mean that, or was that just a good talking point?
Throneburg’s biggest challenges will be the conservative-leaning nature of the district – and what appears to be an unfavorable political climate for Democrats across the country. Midterms historically go badly for the party in presidential power. Republicans, don’t get too smug: Two years from now, Joe Biden might look like a genius. Ronald Reagan saw Republicans suffer big losses in the 1982 midterms; two years later, he was winning reelection in a 49-state landslide. Right now, though, Biden looks like a dead weight on Democrats. Democrats can talk up the glories of the federal infrastructure plan until their faces turn Democratic blue; what voters see most are rising prices and empty shelves. Democrats can explain those all they want, but a time-honored political adage holds that if you’re explaining, you’re losing.
To win, Throneburg needs to overperform while Good underperforms. Is that possible? To do that, Throneburg will need to do several things.
First, he’ll need to present himself as a “different” sort of Democrat in a district that has shown it doesn’t have much interest in electing regular Democrats. The risk of this, of course, is that such moderation might depress enthusiasm among those regular Democrats who see no reason why any candidate should be different. In Australia, Labor Party leader Albanese tried to moderate many of the party’s positions – you can either say this worked, since he won, or didn’t, since he did lose some climate change votes to both the Greens and those teal independents.
Second, Throneburg is going to have to maximize the Democratic base, a goal that is complicated by the goal of coming across “different” enough to sell himself to other voters. Can he work around the political version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion – for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction?
The political geography of the district is worth studying. There are only three localities in the district that went Democratic in last fall’s gubernatorial election: Charlottesville (82.9%), Albemarle County (62%) and Danville (53.4%). The first thing any candidate wants to do is maximize his or her base, so Throneburg really needs to turn out the voters in these three localities. Turnout in some of them, though, was pretty unimpressive last November. Danville’s turnout was 45%, Charlottesville’s 51%, while Albemarle’s was 62%. By contrast, some rural localities saw big surges, which benefitted Republicans. Goochland, which is now in the 5th, saw a 71% turnout. Hanover, which is now partially in the 5th, saw 68% turnout. Nelson County voted at 65%, Amelia County at 64%, Appomattox County, Bedford County and Louisa County at 63%, Amherst County and Fluvanna County at 61%. This is what Throneburg is up against; Republican localities have been voting at higher rates than Democratic ones. If you’re Good, you want to keep those localities doing just that. If you’re Throneburg, you’ve got to be motivating a lot of voters who haven’t been motivated in the recent past. Can he?
Part of his challenge is that there simply aren’t many places to go in the district to find those voters. Clearly, Charlottesville and Danville are places to mine; Albemarle County is, too, but realistically might have maxed out last fall. But after that? After those three Democratic-voting localities, the two best Democratic localities in the district are Prince Edward County (which went 45% Democratic last fall) and Lynchburg (44.2%). Of those two, Lynchburg is more than three times bigger than Prince Edward. Turnout there last November was a pretty woeful 45%, even though the city was voting Republican. So yes, one key to Throneburg’s campaign might be how well he can turn out Democratic voters in Lynchburg. Ironically, the Good campaign may well look at those same numbers and conclude that Lynchburg has opportunity for them, too. Here’s a place that votes Republican but has low turnout. The Hill City, a new addition to the 5th District after decades in the 6th, may be in for a very enthusiastic welcome from both parties.
The one thing that distinguishes the Good-Throneburg campaign from a generic Republican-Democrat campaign is that Good is not a generic Republican. He’s consistently aligned himself with the most far-right members of the House. The only reason he hasn’t gotten the same level of attention as a Gaetz or a Greene is that he has more skillfully avoided the spotlight. Can Throneburg make the case that Good is simply too far right for what, realistically, is a right-leaning district? Can he make Good, in effect, radioactive – an election denier, a pandemic denier? Throneburg will certainly try; whether that works we’ll just have to see. After Good was renominated Saturday, Throneburg put out a statement saying that the interests of the district “have all been left behind in service of Good’s endless culture wars.”
Politically, this is smart. Politically, this is also a gamble. We might come to find out that a majority of 5th District voters like those “endless culture wars” – especially if the alternative is a Democrat. The problem for Throneburg – and Democrats nationally – is how much the Democratic brand has become poisonous among many rural voters. Again, if we had ranked-choice voting and teal independents, this might be a more complicated contest.
Throneburg is trying to make the case that Good is not a traditional “bring home the bacon” congressman – “He failed to pass any notable legislation, and he failed to bring any significant projects or federal dollars home to the district,” Throneburg said in his statement. In effect, he’s trying to say that Good cares more about immigration along the country’s southern border than the economy along the district’s southern border. Good has made four trips to the Mexican border and said Saturday that he’ll be making a fifth one soon. “I pledge to not vote for any government spending until we secure the border,” he declared. We may have a long wait; the border has long been insecure in the sense that it’s historically been porous. Years ago, I visited Big Bend National Park in Texas and saw some Mexicans ride their horses across the Rio Grande to shop at a store, and then go back home. What’s different is that we have a major migration from Latin America underway – more border enforcement or even a wall is not going to change those underlying conditions that spur people northward. On the other hand, Democrats often underestimate the degree to which the unregulated influx of people across the southern border is an irritant to many voters in ways that have nothing to do with easy appeals to xenophobia. The government simply looks ineffectual in a basic duty, a duty that realistically it may not be able to perform absent some major militarization of the border. Throneburg has to make people care more about some unsecured federal project than they do about whatever news report they saw last night on Fox News. Passion will be on Good’s side there.
There was a time when Throneburg’s argument that Good hasn’t done much except engage in “endless culture wars” might have been a fatal one for Good. That was also a less polarized time in which we expected members of Congress to be actual legislators. Now, voters are much more likely to choose up sides based simply on party labels. A rousing performance on your cable news network of choice often makes up for the absence of any tangible results. Voters become more tolerant of extremists on both sides simply because they’re on their side.
The political attention in Virginia this fall will be focused on Luria and Spanberger. Democrats will be trying to defend both; Republicans will be trying to knock both off. In a year in which Democrats will be on defense, the question is whether they can find time to go on offense anywhere. If so, will they invest in a district where they have been disappointed so many times before?
In Australian, will they give the 5th a fair go because they think Good is a yobbo? Or will they just whinge?