The reason I haven't been blogging much is I am working with Patrick Hope's campaign for Congress. I don't like writing about campaigns that I am involved with except in special circumstances- so expect me to continue to be fairly quiet through June 10th.
But I would be remiss to not comment on yesterday's special election in Arlington where John Vihstadt won a landslide victory over Alan Howze- breaking a 15 year streak of wins for Arlington Democrats in every race where there are partisan nominations. I predicted this in January when I wrote on Facebook that Alan would be the weakest of the Democratic nominees- not because of anything Alan did wrong- but because of the unique environment where voters were looking to strike out at someone with a partisan background. The simple fact is the Arlington County Board was seen as being more responsive to political party stuff than community things- a critique that is not totally fair, but has been widespread in the community for a while.
So why did Vihstadt win? A few key points:
#1- The most overlooked factor has been a decade long trend of local Democrats in Arlington, Alexandria and inner-Fairfax constantly underperforming top of the ticket Democrats- even when they run on the same day. This ranges from narrow special election wins for state and local office to long time incumbents who get less votes than their top of the ticket. This often goes unnoticed as the press reports who "wins"- but this is a regionwide problem and has been going on for quite some time.
#2- Adding to #1, there were unique local issues that exploded the number of Democrats willing to defect. Some voters might have been pushed by one issue (streetcar), but the vast majority I talked to yesterday were talking about many issues all combining to vent their frustration. For what its worth- I was at a number of polls yesterday, and at three different ones I heard the Democratic pollworker and the Republican pollworker standing outside in total agreement on the issues and their frustrations with various things. Rare to see that, but it was happening all over.
#3- The Vihstadt campaign was smart to run as an Independent backed by local Republicans (and with some Dem endorsements) rather than run as a Republican who got Dem endorsements. Heard many voters saying they could stomach someone who wasn't a GOP nominee and that would have been the deciding factor for them to *not* vote for Vihstadt had he run as a Republican.
#4- People hate partisan politics at the local level. I know this cuts against point #3, but voters are complex. They clearly liked the idea of some type of "coalition" politics for local government. The dislike of partisan politics at the local level applies all over the state, and is why there are still many Democratic elected officials at the local level downstate. Vihstadt running as an Independent baited many local Dems into highlighting his past support of Republicans- and I heard over and over yesterday from *Democratic* voters on how that backfired and ticked them off. It distracted from the issue differences between Howze and Vihstadt and voters said they saw it as a sign of weakness that it was discussed- even though many said it was also on their minds. As I said above, people are complex.
The big irony in the results yesterday is Alan Howze is a very good listener who would probably be very well received by voters once in office. This election really wasn't about him though- or his opponent John Vihstadt. Voters kept saying over and over- they wanted to send a broader message that all their elected officials would hear. A 16 point margin against the Democratic candidate in Arlington is a pretty loud message indeed. It will be interesting to see how the party decides to move forward and take next steps to make sure this doesn't happen again.
One other interesting footnote- the Democratic GOTV was one of the better efforts I've seen in a special election- hats off to Kip Malinosky and his team. It's a good lesson to remember that strength of campaigns only really matter in close elections- there is nothing you can do campaign wise if the voters decide to go elsewhere.