|In the modern history of Virginia politics, there is only one person who ever got elected to statewide office after having voted, or conceded his support, for a tax increase: Democrat L. Douglas Wilder. In the history of Virginia, there has never been anyone, in either party, elected on a platform promising to raise taxes even a little.
But starting this week, top-tier candidates for LG and AG on both sides of the aisle are going to have to "go on the board" as they say in the General Assembly on various proposals to raise taxes to fund maintenance for our transportation grid, along with new roads and mass transit projects.
In 2004, with an eye to winning GOP statewide nominations, Delegate Bob McDonnell, along with Senators Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli, voted NO on the Warner tax increase. They knew their vote on this measure would be a defining litmus test for their hope of conservative support at a GOP nominating convention, plus at the polls on general election day.
Here in 2013, any number of similarly-situated delegates and senators trying for a GOP nomination at the upcoming May convention will likewise either vote NO or forfeit any chance of being nominated. This means Senators Steve Martin and Mark Obenshain, leading candidates for LG and AG respectively, will vote NO. Having studied the history of the 2004 vote, they will be joined by at least three, and likely several more, GOP senators in rejecting the McDonnell plan or any substitute seen as raising taxes.
Meaning: The governor's dream of any transportation legacy is likely dead unless Democrats in the State Senate provide the votes to at least pass some road plan out of their body this week. Why? Because the governor can't take the risk of relying on the House of Delegates to send a bill over to the Senate. Should both houses fail to pass an appropriate bill this week, then there is no legislative vehicle to keep such a transportation plan legislatively alive. Yes, the governor could send down a new bill at any time. But this will not change the final outcome.
Further meaning: Governor McDonnell and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw can count votes. Thus they have surely reached some type of "understanding" as regards what the Senate needs to do this week to keep a bill alive. In turn, the governor has surely told Saslaw what he intends to do as regards the GOP senators redistricting power grab.
Enter then Democratic Senators Northam and Herring. They are the favorites right now for the Democratic nod for Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General, respectively. How will they vote this week? Do they vote NO on all tax increases, this being the smart play on an historic basis. Or do they follow the Wilder example and do what they believe is the right thing for the state? To be sure, Wilder wasn't a candidate for Lt. Governor when he voted to increase taxes.
Moreover, Northam and Herring have to assume their respective general election opponents are going to have anti-tax voting records. The "tax issue" has always been the best one for Republican candidates since Virginia became a two-party state.
What should the two Democratic senators do? In that regard, the posture of McDonnell and Bolling, life-long anti-tax conservatives needs to be considered. They helped lead the fight against the 2004 tax increase. But here in 2013, they are both ready, willing, even eager, to support a tax increase.
As a political matter, the governor has cleverly tied his sales tax increase to the elimination of the gas tax. Whatever your views of this tradeoff as a policy matter, in my view it is a brilliant political play for a conservative Republican governor.
My own gut: Democratic legislators should try to figure out a way to join with Governor McDonnell and Republican House Speaker Bill Howell to fix at least the maintenance mess building on our transportation grid. Yes, it is a risky move in an election year.
Senators Northam and Herring should join them. Will it likely define their race for LG and AG? YES. But a NO vote would give their Democratic primary opponents, all searching for some traction, a sure foothold, perhaps even a winning issue. How would Northam and Herring defend a NO vote on transportation taxes this time? It would be the defining moment for the Dem primary.
However, they are no doubt asking themselves: What is Terry MAC going to say on the tax issue? They don't want to get crosswise with T-Man. Terry has been quiet on the issue. But can the Democratic GUV candidate this year be seen as refusing to help a GOP governor and GOP Speaker when they probably are offering the only chance to solve the maintenance problem for the next ten years?
Assume the General Assembly kills McDonnell's plan, with McAuliffe quiet. Doesn't this give LG Bolling a real platform to run for governor, since we can assume Mr. Cuccinelli is likely to stay anti-tax all the way? Assume further Herring and Northam vote YES. Doesn't this put Terry MAC in a huge box? On the other hand, suppose Terry endorses a tax increase for transportation, joining the Democrats in the Senate. It could mean a three-way race with an anti-tax Republican against a pro-tax Republican and pro-tax Democrat.
Yet on yet another hand: Could it not squeeze Bolling out of the race perhaps?
One thing I do know: If Bolling can run as the only guy who tried to help McDonnell fix this problem, it creates a fascinating three-way race, one that defies conventional analysis. Perhaps without realizing it, McDonnell's willingness to reject his former "Hell NO anti-tax orthodoxy" puts him straddling the fault line of contemporary GOP politics.
In that regard, Cuccinelli is not the radical but the traditionalist on economic/tax/budget issues. Right now, he is cornered as primarily a social conservative, and no one running with such an agenda as JOB # 1 has been elected governor since the days of segregation. But a good tax fight might save Cuccinelli. If Bolling can run as the pro-McDonnell guy against no-tax Kenny and Terry, this opens up the middle ground to the LG despite his right-wing record. It forces a wide spectrum of Virginia voters with independent or independent Republican leanings to make a strategic choice and give him a new look.
They aren't big fans of Ken Cuccinelli right now, given his image as Mr. Social Conservative on Steroids. So, in a two way race, they are very likely to break for McAuliffe, all things being the same in November. However, these folks can accept a sales tax increase as proposed by the governor to fix a real transportation problem, especially when it is married to the elimination of a far more disliked tax, the one on gasoline. Every time they fill up the tank, they pay a lot of money and figure gas taxes are a big part of it whether true or not.
In a race between an anti-tax Republican, an anti-tax Democrat and a pro-tax "moderate" GOP independent, there is surely a high risk to Terry that those anti-Cuccinelli Goppers/Independents could go a lot more for Bolling than is currently appreciated. A lot more.
2013 features an unprecedented strategic factor in VA elections: the first Republican governor who came to office promising that no new taxes would be needed, yet who wants to leave office with the perceived legacy of having had the guts to break that pledge for the good of the Commonwealth. Right now, only LG Bill Bolling is backing McD's play among those angling for a statewide political run this fall.
My gut: McD and Bolling are on to something politically in Virginia. The strategy of eliminating the gas tax for a sales tax, and anticipating new laws backed by Republicans as a matter of business fairness regarding collecting taxes due from online or catalog sales, has some real potential 2013 juice on election day.
The rigid anti-tax position in a gubernatorial election year has always been the right strategy call. But this may not be true for the first time in the modern two-party age due to a three-way race.