Posted on April 25, 1994 in Washington Watch

One of the most unusual elections in recent U.S. history is unfolding this year in the state of Virginia.

Virginia is one of the original thirteen colonies that made the United States. Its people are proud of their traditions and their political history. Four of our first five Presidents came from Virginia: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. And it was, in part, the traditions that were inherited from these “founding fathers” that made politics in Virginia a “gentlemanly art.”

It is this proud history that makes many Virginians so upset about this year’s Senatorial election. The incumbent is a Democratic Senator who has admitted to numerous sexual affairs, has been accused of attending parties where drugs were used, and whose aides have been convicted of wiretapping the phones and taping the conversations of his political opponents. His leading Republican challenger is an admitted liar and was indicted as one of the major figures behind the Iran-Contra scandal. And possibly complicating the race are hints of an independent challenge by a former Governor who has repeatedly been accused of self-promotion and mean-spirited political infighting in an effort to discredit his opponents.

This three ring circus has Virginians embarrassed and somewhat bewildered. One Virginia political analyst said, “You would almost think that God is punishing us for past sins by giving us the worst choices in history.”

But what makes this race so noteworthy, however, is not how poor the choices are for Virginia’s voters, but how the candidates and the election itself are symptomatic of some troubling trends that are undermining U.S. electoral politics.

The incumbent, Democratic Senator Chuck Robb, was not always the embarrassment some feel he has become. He was, no too many years ago, a rising star in American politics.

He was a well-decorated soldier, and was married at a young age in a White House ceremony to Lynda Bird Johnson, the daughter of then-President Lyndon Johnson. Just ten years later he won his first election as Lieutenant Governor of the State of Virginia, and four years after that he won election as Governor. His tenure in office was extremely successful: he improved the state’s educational system and added significantly to Virginia’s economic growth. He was so popular when he left office that when he ran for Senate four years later, the incumbent Republican resigned rather than face Robb in what would have been a certain defeat. In that 1988 Senate election Robb won by an astounding 71-29% margin and became the biggest Democratic vote-getter in Virginia’s history.

He became a leader in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the prestigious group that served as the springboard for Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. (In fact, in 1992 many speculated that if Clinton did not run, Robb would have been the DLC’s choice for President.) He also served successfully as Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the group charged with raising money to help elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

How is it that this illustrious Senator has fallen from a more than 2-1 victory to the highest unfavorable rating of any sitting U.S. Senator? The answer lies in a number of factors involving both the dangers that politics presents to the egos of those who enter its snare, and the workings of the U.S. press which will leave no stone of a politician’s personal life unturned.

Early in Robb’s political career he apparently was captured by the lure of personal power and ego-gratification. He is not the first politician to fall prey to such personal excesses. But, in part because he was so successful, and in part because his image was so clean – his political foes used every negative revelation about him to discredit Robb with the press. When the press caught hold of the stories about sex and drugs in the Senator’s early political career, they ran non-stop investigation and exposés about his behavior. The effect has been to bring the Senator’s reputation to ruin.

But while Robb’s poll ratings are at an all-time low, he retains an enormous warchest of campaign funds (as much as $2 million), which is enough to scare off most serious Democratic opponents who might challenge him.

Robb does have two opponents in this year’s Democratic primary – a female attorney who has very little name recognition and a little-known populist State Senator from the sparsely populated southern part of the state. Since his opponents will probably not have the money needed run an effective state-wide campaign, they probably have little chance of defeating him. So despite the lack of strong sentiment behind him, Robb is likely to emerge as the Democratic candidate in the November election.

On the Republican side, Robb’s leading challenger is former Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. North, it will be recalled, was the star of the Iran-Contra hearings in the U.S. Senate. He was the Reagan Administration National Security Council aide who admitted to illegally funneling money to the Nicaraguan Contra movement, who admitted to lying to Congress about his involvement in the affair, and who admitted to illegally diverting some of the funds he raised for his own personal use.

Nevertheless, it is his very act of defiance in the face of Congress that has made him, for some, a national hero, and a star of the far right wing of American politics. In the years since the hearings North has been on the national lecture circuit and has established a number of fundraising groups that have raised $25 million to support right wing causes – all of which are controlled by North. It is this national donor network that North is tapping to fund his Senate race, for which he believes he will raise $15 million.

Mainstream Republicans are dismayed by the prospect of North representing their party in the Senate. Virginia’s senior Senator, Republican John Warner, has gone so far as to say that he would not support North if he becomes the party’s nominee to challenge Robb in November.

And in an unprecedented move, former President Ronald Reagan has written a letter to Virginia Republicans declaring North to be a liar. In the letter Reagan also indirectly supports North’s little-known opponent, James Miller, who also served as an official in the Reagan Administration.

Virginia Republican politics has increasingly come to be dominated by the fundamentalist Christian right wing. In the Republican Party’s convention, where the Republican nomination will be decided, these fundamentalist activists have gained the upper hand. They are a small but committed group and they support Oliver North. So with big money ($3 million raised to date) and a core of committed supporters, it looks as if North may well be Robb’s opponent in November.

So disenchanted are Virginia’s voters with the prospect of a Robb-North race, a recent poll showed almost 70% of them hoping that a credible independent candidate would enter the race.

Enter Doug Wilder.

Wilder was Robb’s Lieutenant Governor, and in 1988 was elected to succeed him as Governor. In so doing he became the nation’s first African American Governor – a matter of pride for Virginia and the nation. But Wilder’s political actions in his four years in office exposed his weaknesses for self-promotion and political infighting. He has been one of Robb’s most bitter antagonists. As a result of his behavior, he has the distinction of being one of the only Virginia politicians with a lower approval rating than Chuck Robb. Yet despite all that, he continues to send signs that he may run as an independent in November, challenging both Robb and North.

To complicate matters even further, a group of Virginia Republicans is so concerned about North representing their party that they are putting time and money into preparing the ground for an independent bid by Marshall Coleman. Wilder defeated Coleman in the Governor’s race four years ago, but the margin was razor-close. Coleman has not announced his intentions, but he is aware of what the group of Republicans are doing on his behalf and hasn’t asked them to stop.

In a potential four-way race, African Americans will tend to support Wilder, the Christian far right will support North, moderate Republicans will tend to support Coleman’s independent bid and a core of Democratic voters will support Robb. The outcome is anyone’s guess. But what is certain is that this year’s Virginia Senate race will be both unusual and a lesson on the dangerous currents at work in U.S. politics.

These dangerous currents are extremely visible in this race. First, there is the pervasive role that big money has come to play in the system. It has reached the point where money has a greater ability to influence elections than do political parties with their millions of members. The very fact that 70% of Virginia’s voters want someone other than Robb and North to run should be enough to deny either or both them their party’s nomination, but it is still likely that they will be representing the Democratic and Republican parties in November.

The second dangerous current is the ability of the media to play such a large role in determining the public perception of a politician. It is true, for example, that many voters do not approve of aspects of Chuck Robb’s private behavior; but these images have received disproportionate emphasis from the media. Robb’s success as Governor and his achievements in the Senate have gone largely unmentioned in the press for the past two years, leaving voters a distorted view of his record in public life. The same media projected Oliver North into the star role that he enjoys on Virginia’s political stage, despite the fact that he has never before held elective office. It is increasingly true that the public is better informed about candidates’ private lives and the controversies surrounding them than they are on the candidates’ positions on major issues.

The third dangerous current is the influence of the religious right wing in American politics. The danger does not stem so much from the fact that the group is trying to bring religious ideas into politics, but in the fact that the ideology of the Christian right is so very intolerant and exclusive. The absolutist mentality of the far right wing turns political debate into a morality play where those with whom they disagree are not simply wrong but corrupt. Such subtle demagoguery is not compatible with the pluralistic character of U.S. politics and society.

For all of these reasons, the highly controversial Virginia Senate race is worthy of close scrutiny. Its outcome will be an important indicator of how large a role these three factors are playing in American politics. If things stand as they now appear, with a four-way race looming, it will not be a good sign of the state of our electoral politics. But things are quite unsettled at the moment, and should a voter revolt take place and either Robb or North (or both) be defeated in their bids for nomination, it will be clear that these currents are playing less of a role.

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