February 15, 2016
In case you missed it, Jim Gilmore has suspended his campaign for president. In case you missed it, Jim Gilmore was running for president. Of the United States. Every campaign cycle has a joke candidate, the one taken less seriously than any other. This time it was Gilmore.
In a field of 17, he was number 17, though he outlasted ten of them. Gilmore spent the campaign below the Pataki Line. His future is as a bar trivia question. Though he couldn’t get any traction, it is reasonable to think a former Governor of Virginia could serve as a viable candidate.
There is some precedent. Thomas Jefferson was an ex-governor. So was James Monroe. Virginians once had a hammerlock on the presidency. Four of the first five (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) hailed from the Commonwealth.
Virginia’s John Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison in 1841 after the 9th president caught pneumonia during his lengthy inaugural address and succumbed soon after. I mention this because Tyler is the last president to hail from Virginia.
Monroe last ran for president in 1820. He’s the last major party presidential nominee from Virginia. Tyler is the last vice presidential nominee. No nominees from Virginia for either spot in the past 176 years.
This isn’t a minor state like Delaware, home of the current VP. It’s not a lightly populated one far out west like Wyoming, home of the preceding VP. Neither of those are swing states, Virginia is. As a result, current senator and former governor Tim Kaine is mentioned as a Democratic possibility this year, but so far the streak continues.
It’s not like Virginians are trying to win nominations and failing. Then-governor Doug Wilder ran on the Democrats side in 1992, but withdrew before any states voted. That’s about the closest anyone has come. Jim Webb gave it a try this time and didn’t get as far as Wilder.
In the pre-primary era, when nominations started and finished at the conventions, it’s possible there was some back room conversation about a Virginian, but near as I can tell, not a single serious candidate since Monroe almost 200 years ago.
Why? What’s so inadequate about this place, one that is home to a good chunk of the permanent government and the home away from home for much of congress.
I can explain away several decades. From the Civil War until 1928, neither party put a candidate from a former Confederate state on the ticket. That accounts for 60+ years.
However, Democrats had a candidate on the ticket from one of those states in 1928, 1932, 1936, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. Republicans got a late start, but managed in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004. That’s apparently not a problem now.
If there’s no geographic bias, it’s a fairly important state, and a swing state, then what? It’s not a shortage of possibilities. Just in the past couple decades, Chuck Robb, Wilder, George Allen, Webb, Mark Warner, Bob McDonnell and Kaine were viewed as possibilities.
None won a single delegate. Most didn’t try. McDonnell wound up indicted and convicted of federal corruption charges, so it’s understandable he didn’t give it a try. He’s currently occupied trying to keep himself out of jail.
The rest of the answer is in the crowded group of prospects. Virginia does not allow governors to run for consecutive terms in office. On a regular basis, an ex-governor is looking for work. In the case of Allen, Warner, and Kaine, the next stop was the U.S. Senate.
Most states have no more than one clear prospect for the presidency. Virginia often has multiple semi-plausible choices. This makes it very difficult for one to lock up local support.
At the moment, the state has two Democratic senators (Warner and Kaine) who are both ex-governors. An ex-DNC chairman, Terry McAuliffe, is governor. Kaine is an ex-DNC chair himself. Exactly who would donors and other establishment players line up behind?
A true outsider isn’t getting elected in Virginia. It’s the seat of the national political establishment and too many residents owe their jobs to parts of it. Webb was the closest, and he served in the Reagan Administration.
He also didn’t want to run for re-election in 2012, costing himself momentum for any presidential run. When he won his seat in 2006, he defeated Allen, ending the Republican’s dreams of a White House run in 2008 or 2012.
On top of everything else, the type of Democrat who can win statewide in Virginia is unacceptably conservative to win presidential nomination. Webb had all sorts of other impediments, but this was an important one.
Republicans have too hard a time staying employed to make a serious run. A one term governor might want more seasoning, but can’t win a second term to make a presidential run in the middle of.
A GOP senator is always looking at a re-election fight. So is a Democrat. Warner nearly lost to Ed Gillespie in 2014. Guess what, Gillespie is an ex RNC-chair. So is the invisible Jim Gilmore. Party chairmen run for office, and out-of-work Virginians become Party chairmen.
In an outsider year, they’re all poison. Mostly, high-profile Virginia pols are stuck in purgatory. All are a bigger deal than the average governor or senator, none are able to stand out or break free of the party apparatus. Sometimes more is less. Until this changes, we won’t see a Virginian leading a ticket (or perhaps even on one as a running mate).
Back when bosses controlled nominations, there were no Virginia prospects. Now that smoke-filled rooms are gone, there are plenty. This won’t hold forever, but for now, an important state is excluded from the process.
NOTE: For four decades beginning in the mid-1920s, Virginia politics was controlled by Harry F. Byrd. After serving his one term as governor, he spent over three decades in the Senate and is arguably the most powerful political figure in state history (keep in mind who else is from Virginia.)
He was considered a prospect for the presidency in 1932, but wisely endorsed FDR instead. Later on, he was too old, too established, and too much of a segregationist to win the presidency. He did win some general election votes in 1956 and 15 electoral votes in 1960 despite not being a candidate either time.
Nobody was getting past Harry Byrd to run from Virginia.