So, the big news out of the weekend’s Republican convention was the surprise nomination of E.W. Jackson, a Chesapeake attorney and minister, for lieutenant governor. That the party tilted to the right wasn’t a surprise, especially in a convention setting. Any of the other likely GOP candidates would have been pretty conservative, too. But the selection of the little-known Jackson — a Tea Party favorite who topped various Republican office-holders — was the surprise.
I’ve put on my historian’s hat and here are three questions that come to mind:
* What’s the right historical parallel here for Jackson’s nomination? Thrice before, major parties in Virginia have nominated African-Americans for statewide office (although, it should be noted, Jackson disdains that designation.) Is this more analagous to the Democrats fielding Doug Wilder for lieutenant governor in 1985 (let’s set aside his gubernatorial campaign in 1989; by then he was already a statewide office-holder) or the Republicans nominating Maurice Dawkins for the U.S. Senate in 1988?
If those are the only choices, neither quite fits. Dawkins, like Jackson, was little-known to the general public in 1988; but he also was going up against Chuck Robb, at the height of his popularity. We don’t know yet who Jackson’s Democratic opponent will be but, to borrow a phrase, whoever it is, he won’t be any Chuck Robb. In that regard, Jackson might come closer to the Wilder example, who was clearly the weakest of the three Democratic candidates in 1985 but prevailed when his ticket-mates swept into office in what was a good year for his party. One key difference, of course: Wilder was well-known from years of service in the General Assembly, Jackson isn’t. So neither of those parallels are quite parallel, after all.
Two better historical examples might be two white Republican candidates for lieutenant governor — Mike Farris in 1993 and John Hager in 1997. Farris, known as a home-schooling advocate, was the favorite of the GOP convention that year. Democrats successfully portrayed him as too extreme, and he lost in what was otherwise a good year for Republicans (George Allen was elected governor and Jim Gilmore was elected attorney general that year.) Will Democrats be able to make Jackson out as this year’s version of Mike Farris? Or will Jackson be more like Hager? Hager was never considered as far to the right as Jackson apparently is, but he was considered by many to be a weak candidate in 1997, a sure loser to Democrat L.F. Payne, at the time the congressman representing much of Southside Virginia. Except that . . . Gilmore swept to victory as governor, and pulled Hager in with him. Could a big Cuccinelli victory this fall pull in Jackson, too?
Of course, maybe there is no historical parallel. So let’s move on to some other questions:
* Will Jackson’s nomination influence who the Democrats nominate? More to the point, will Democrats now be more inclined to nominate a minority on their ticket — either former technology secretary Aneesh Chopra for lieutenant governor (instead of Norfolk state Sen. Ralph Northam), or former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax for attorney general (instead of Loudoun County state Sen. Mark Herring)? Given that the Democrats are holding a primary, the short answer is probably “no.” This isn’t a situation where party leaders can get together, figure out a answer, and then send down the word. Primaries don’t work that way; (sometimes conventions don’t, either!). It would be ironic, though, in a historical way if the Republicans wound up nominating a more diverse ticket than the Democrats.
(And since this is the Blue Ridge Caucus blog, let’s make a geographical note, as well: Republicans have nominated a ticket with candidates from Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and the Shenandoah Valley; Democrats are certain to have two candidates from Northern Virginia — Terry McAuliffe and both of the AG candidates live there; and if Chopra defeats Northam, then all three Democrats could be from just one part of the state.)
* Democrats hope that Jackson’s nomination will underscore how out of the mainstream they believe the Republican ticket it — and serve as the deadweight that brings it down. However, could just the opposite happen? Could it be that Jackson helps make his ticket-mates look more moderate? Republicans have shown no interest in distancing themselves from Jackson — although the Washington Post quoted one over the weekend as saying they now had to go research their own candidate to find out just who they had nominated. Perhaps Jackson will turn out to be a fine candidate, one who brings energy and excitement to the ticket in a way Republicans could not have imagined. And there’s always the chance his Democratic opponent, whoever he is, turns out to be a dud. But, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume Jackson doesn’t work out, that voters come to see him as too extreme. Does that necessarily hurt his ticketmates? Mike Farris didn’t appear to drag down George Allen in 1993. Might any contrast actually help Cuccinelli?
– Dwayne Yancey