Previous Page  4 / 32 Next Page
Show Menu
Previous Page 4 / 32 Next Page
Page Background







, F




General Assembly

Experience may not help

Rookie Congressmen

By Richard Meagher

Observers of politics have long noted

one of the many ironies of the United

State Congress: everyone seems to hate the

institution, and yet it’s nearly impossible for

a member not to get re-elected. In 2014, as

Gallup’s approval rating measure hit an all-

time low of 9%, nearly 95% of incumbents

were returned to Congress.

Still, if there’s one state that has bucked

this incumbency trend, it’s Virginia. Thanks

to the cumulative effects of a number of

events, both routine and historical, the

Virginia Congressional delegation has been dramatically reshaped

over the past few elections. The most seismic of these events, of

course, was the 2014 election of (my former colleague) Dave Brat in

the Virginia 7th. Brat’s upset of sitting House Minority Leader Eric

Cantor in the 2014 Republican primary turned out to be the first of

many changes to the VA delegation. To wit:

• The 2014 election also saw two major retirements, with the

replacement of longtime representatives Jim Moran (8th district)

and Frank Wolf (10th) by Don Beyer and Barbara Comstock,


• Earlier this year, both the 2nd district’s Scott Rigell and 5th’s Robert

Hurt announced their own retirements.

• Court-ordered redistricting also led to Randy Forbes’ ill-fated

attempt to switch districts in 2016, leaving Forbes’ 4th district open

as well.

• Rob Wittman may be comfortably ensconced in the 1st district this

year, but he hopes to leave that seat for the Governor’s office next


• Tim Kaine’s Vice Presidential nod adds even more uncertainty, as

Bobby Scott (3rd district) is one of the names most mentioned to fill

Kaine’s Senate seat should the Democrats win the Presidency this

fall. And who knows which, if any, members of Congress from the

Republican side might run for that Senate seat in not one, but two

upcoming elections in 2017 and 2018?

The end result is a massive amount of turnover in our state’s

House delegation. It would not be out of the question for Virginia to

head into 2018 with Republican Bob Goodlatte in the 6th (serving

since 1993) as the only member of the state’s delegation with more

than 10 years of Congressional experience.

What does this mean for Virginia? Less experience in office

means less experience playing the game of politics in Washington.

The resulting lack of clout means that Virginians might not get

appointments to key committees. This was Randy Forbes’ argument

in switching to a new district; Virginians, he claimed, needed the

power he had as Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces

Subcommittee to help defend Norfolk and Virginia Beach against

cuts in defense spending. (Voters in his new district seemed to think

that his chairmanship mattered less than his carpetbagging.)

Congress may have eliminated official earmarks—line items

that direct money to specific projects in legislators’ districts—but

that doesn’t mean that “pork barrel” politics have gone away. Savvy

politicians can still find ways to direct funding towards home or, as

Forbes claims to have done, at least protect the funding that is still

there. It might be unpopular to publicly defend traditional pork barrel

spending in the age of the Tea Party. But even conservative politicians

have been happy to take credit for highway funding and public works

projects, economic development, and targeted loans and grants.

This year’s crop of new representatives may need to find

successes like these to stay popular with constituents back home, but

they may also have a distinct advantage: familiarity with legislative

politics. Three favored candidates for Congress this fall are currently

members of the Virginia General Assembly:

• In the 2nd district, Scott Taylor stunned Forbes in the GOP primary

and is heavily favored against Democrat Shaun Brown; Taylor is in

his second term as a Delegate fromVirginia Beach.

• Long-time Democratic State Senator Don McEachin is facing a

tougher battle against Henrico Sherriff MikeWade in the 4th district,

but is still favored to win. (Larry Sabato has been rating this district

as “safe Democratic” for most of the summer.)

• Tom Garrett, who just started his second term as State Senator,

is taking on Jane Dittmar in the 5th; the Buckingham County

Republican is solidly favored (despite concerns that even “safe”

GOP districts might be dragged down if Trump loses badly in the


Assuming the favorites win out, that would be threeVirginia state

representatives now moving up to the big leagues. They would join

Barbara Comstock, who served as a Delegate for five years before

moving toWashington.

State-level politics is different from the national level in many

ways, but of course the general principle is the same. Rookies like

McEachin and Garrett would have a sharp learning curve in terms

of institutional knowledge—how Congress itself operates—but

presumably they already have a considerable amount of political

knowledge. Unlike outsiders or even those who come from other kinds

of offices (attorneys general, say, or state cabinet secretaries), these

rookies would at least have familiarity with legislative policymaking:

how to make deals, work with others, and get bills passed.

McEachin particularly has long been a player in state politics,

and a position in Congress would make him one of the most powerful

Democrats in the state (if he isn’t one already). He seems most poised

to take advantage of his experience. Garrett and Taylor are fresher

faces, and landing in Congress would be the latest step in rapid rises to

power propelled in part by their staunch conservatism. The question

for them as rookies will be how much to work with GOP leadership

or, like their soon-to-be colleague Brat, whether to buck the powers

that be. Brat’s maverick style has helped keep him popular in his

district, but some conservatives (particularly writers at Virginia’s

Bearing Drift

blog) take him to task for his lack of accomplishment.

Unlike Brat, Garrett and Taylor have been legislators, and might know

a thing or two more than him about dealmaking—while pleasing

constituents at the same time.

Comstock might be a better model for rookies than Brat. She

has so far been successful in voting with her constituents, even as it

has somewhat reduced her conservative credibility. (Citizens Against

Government Waste rates her as merely “Friendly” as opposed to a

“Taxpayer Hero” like Brat.) And she has managed to land the chair of

a subcommittee favorable to NoVA’s technology sector.

Still, Washington is a very large and very new pond, with lots of

fish swimming in it. No matter what, it will take time for the newbies

to make an impression and find their place—and that’s assuming

they even stick around for more than a term or two. Legislators are

often most vulnerable to challenge after their first victory—just ask

Glenn Nye—so there are no guarantees they will even stay in office,

let alone become the next Frank Wolf, who served for 34 years. In

fact, the only guarantee is that with so many fresh faces, the Virginia

delegation will have a long way to go before it moves back up the

pecking order in Congress.

Richard Meagher is Associate Professor of Political Science at

Randolph-Macon College. His writing about Virginia state and

local politics is featured on the Washington Post’s

All Opinions are


page, WRIC’s


site, and his own

RVA Politics