Could Kaine's Budget Beat Marsden?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

In this morning's edition, Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch writes:
The first test of political repercussions of the Kaine budget may occur about 100 miles north of the state Capitol, in a January special election in Fairfax County for a state Senate seat vacated by Republican Attorney General-elect Ken Cuccinelli.

Del. David W. Marsden, a Democrat, moved into the district to run for the seat. Republicans, rallying around former School Board trustee Steve Hunt, are eager to link Marsden to the Kaine tax plan.

"The voters overwhelmingly said they don't want tax increases, and yet Kaine is proposing just that," said state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins. "Marsden has voted with Kaine's tax packages before. Will he do it again, if given the chance?"
Of course, that's always what Republicans do, rant and rave about how Democrats will "raise your taxes," so what else is new you ask? Well, here's the problem, according to Republican strategist Bill Pascoe, writing in CQ Politics:
You announce your candidacy. And then you play your "I can work across party lines" card, by trotting out an endorsement from the same retired Republican lawmaker whose endorsement you've counted on since your first run for office, way back in 'Ought-Five. The fact that he's your former boss, and that when you worked for him, you were a Republican, and that you switched parties in 2005 to run for office, it is widely believed, because you figured that's the way the tide was turning in your district, well, all that stuff seems irrelevant.

And then you send out your mail to the district, and it's designed to appeal to taxed-to-death Northern Virginians -- you actually rail against Richmond's "higher taxes," as if you hadn't cast that vote back in 2008 for Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine's $2 billion tax increase, and you hope that'll be good enough to fudge the issue in the minds of voters you hope haven't been paying that much attention. It's the holiday season, after all, and this will be a low turnout special election in the middle of January, so at least, you think, you've got a shot at faking it.

And then ... and then your incumbent Democratic governor (whose term expires in less than a month) issues a budget proposal on his way out the door. And in that budget proposal is a call for a massive tax hike -- a tax hike that just happens to be $2 billion, the same amount as that other tax hike, the one you voted for last year.

That budget proposal puts you on the spot. Stand up for the hard-pressed taxpayers of your district, and you risk the ire of the progressive wing of your party (read: the most intense and committed voters in your party, the ones you need to count on for victory in a low turnout special election), and you also risk losing access to liberal money; stand with the outgoing governor, and prepare to be swamped by your Republican opponent on election day.
It's an interesting argument: a Republican-recently-turned-Democrat running against taxes gets sideswiped by a $2 billion tax increase proposal from the leader of his party and, subsequently, is "swamped by [his] Republican opponent on election day." Indeed, the Republican Party of Virginia quickly issued a statement entitled, "Marsden Must Answer on Kaine Tax Increase." And indeed, the mailer Dave Marsden sent out really does "rail against Richmond's 'higher taxes'" (this one gets a "WTF?!?" from me, both on the merits as well as on the politics).

So, is there anything wrong with the argument made by Republican strategist Bill Pascoe? Well, yes and no. The main problem is those two adjectives in front of Bill Pascoe's name -- "Republican strategist." The point is, however strong his argument, I'm immediately suspicious of anyone who's worked for the likes of crazy Alan Keyes and "Diaper" David Vitter.

In the end, though, any argument must be evaluated not so much by who made it and why, but on the core strength of the argument itself. And on those grounds, I'd say that Pascoe lays out a pretty strong case. Whether or not you agree with Kaine's idea, to eliminate the car tax while increasing other taxes even more in order to raise revenues. Personally, I have mixed feelings on that one. On the plus side, I agree with Kaine that eliminating the car tax was a really bad idea that nearly bankrupted Virginia. Thanks Jim Gilmore! In addition, I do not believe that Virginia's budget problems should be dealt with only by cutting, cutting, and cutting some more. At this point, we're past the "fat" stage and into muscle and bone. However, I also agree with Chap Petersen that before we consider increasing taxes on "working families," we should first bring back the estate tax so that, as Chap writes, you can no longer "inherit sums above $100 million and not pay a dime in taxes." My other major problem with Kaine's proposal is that, as Terry McAuliffe always says, "you don't raise taxes in a down economy." And right now we're certainly in a "down economy," to put it mildly.

As to the politics of Kaine's budget plan in the Marsden-Hunt race, I basically agree with Bill Pascoe that it puts Marsden in an extremely difficult position. Perhaps Chap Petersen's quick condemnation of Kaine's plan will provide cover to Marsden to do the same, but so far I haven't heard a peep from him on this (in fact, looking at his website, there doesn't appear to have been any news since December 2, over two weeks ago). With just over three weeks until election day, and with political talk in Virginia likely to be dominated by this budget, I'm really not sure how Marsden deals with this situation. As Pascoe says, if Marsden embraces the $2 billion tax increase, the Republicans will pound him. If he rejects the $2 billion tax increase, Republicans will probably pound him anyway (for "duplicity" or whatever) AND core Democratic voters might be turned off. My guess is that Marsden will attempt to straddle the fence on this one, remain noncommittal, and generally try to keep his head down. But at a time of riled-up Republicans and demoralized Democrats, I don't really see how laying low motivates enough voters to turn out in order to turn Delegate Marsden into Senator Marsden on January 12.