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Thoughts about carpetbagging…

September 26, 2022, 9:00 AM

Lately, I have had very mixed feelings on the subject of carpetbagging when it comes to Congressional races.  First, though, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, “carpetbagging” is an American term that was historically used to describe northerners who came to the south following the Civil War, and who were perceived to be exploiting the local population for their own gain.  The term comes from their luggage, which was typically a traveling bag made out of scraps of carpet.  In modern usage, it is generally used to refer to anyone who is running for political office in an area where they have no local connections.  Among others, Hillary Clinton fits the modern definition of a carpetbagger when she ran for a US Senate seat in New York, as she had never been a New Yorker prior to her running for the Senate.

The reason that I have very mixed feelings about carpetbagging comes from two people who have a history of running for Congress, and who have had varying results.  Additionally, I feel cursed by being able to see the issue from both sides.  Of the two politicians that I’m thinking of, one of them is David Trone, who has represented Maryland’s sixth district in Congress since 2018.  The other is Jennifer Lewis, a politician from Waynesboro, Virginia who has become something of a perennial candidate, having unsuccessfully run for Congress in Virginia’s sixth district in 2018 and a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2019, and who is now is running in the sixth district again this year.

In the case of David Trone, the sixth district was not his first rodeo when it came to congressional races.  Trone first ran for Congress in 2016, when he ran for the eighth district seat, which was open that year after incumbent Chris Van Hollen declined to run for his House seat again in order to run for the Senate to succeed retiring senator Barbara Mikulski (he ultimately won).  Trone ran in the Democratic primary for the eighth district, which was a nine-way race between a bunch of politicians whose names I won’t bore you with because unless you live in Montgomery County, you’ve probably never heard of any of them and never will.  I lived in the eighth district at that time, and I recall having voted for Trone in that primary, because he seemed reasonable enough.  He finished second in the primary behind Jamie Raskin, who took the nomination with 33.6% of the vote to Trone’s 27.1%.  For a nine-way primary, Trone did respectably, but with this being a first-past-the-post system in a single-member district, Raskin advanced to the general election, and Trone was eliminated.  I figured that would be the end of Trone, politically, since Raskin would probably hold the seat for a while, and Trone would return to the private sector and his Total Wine & More business.

Then fast forward to 2018.  Sixth district representative John Delaney announced that he would not run for reelection to his seat in Congress in order to focus on his 2020 presidential campaign.  And if you’re thinking, I’ve never heard of this this guy, I sympathize.  I had moved to Montgomery Village by then, and so he was my congressman, and even then, it was easy to forget who he was or that he was running for anything at all, let alone President of the United States.  I think that the only thing that made him stand out in the field was that he was bald, because he was otherwise pretty uninspiring.  And as I expected, no one really paid any attention to his campaign.  After all, it was a very crowded Democratic field in 2020, and a lot of people with much higher profiles nationally were also running, and so there really wasn’t much room for him.  The only surprise is that he stayed in as late as he did before finally dropping out and endorsing another candidate.

With Delaney’s announcement that he would not be running for his seat in Congress, other candidates announced their intentions to run.  David Trone was one of the people who threw their hat into the ring.  I was a bit surprised by this, because I remembered him from his campaign in the eighth district two years before, and this wasn’t the eighth district.  This, by the way, is where I learned that a member of Congress is only required to be a resident of the state that their district is in, and are not required to live in the specific district that they seek to represent.  Trone, at least at that time, lived in Potomac, which is in the eighth district, i.e. Raskin’s district.  He was running for a seat in the sixth district, which he did not live in.  In other words, Trone was now a carpetbagger, running for office in an area where he had no local connection, but without having to go through all of the hassle of physically moving to that other area.

My stance about Trone’s running in a district where he himself did not live was pretty clear.  I thought that it demonstrated quite well who Trone was really looking to represent in Congress: himself.  It was a really bad look as far as I was concerned, as it made me think that his view was that if he couldn’t get elected in the district where he actually lived, then he’d just jump to the next district over and see if he could find enough suckers to vote for him there – and I’m not a sucker.  I definitely referred to him by some pretty derogatory terms at the time, since I had no reason to think that he actually gave a crap about any of his constituents and would represent our interests, since he only came to the sixth district to try to get into Congress after he couldn’t get elected in the district where he actually lived.  It truly ended right there for me, because as far as I was concerned, he was an outsider, and had no business running in a district that he himself was not a part of, even if it was legal for him to do.  In other words, just because something is legal doesn’t mean that you should do it.  That said, there was no way that I was ever going to consider voting for Trone in the primary.  I ended up voting for Roger Manno, who had the endorsement of my union.  Manno was also out there campaigning outside of the early voting site where Elyse and I went to vote.  We chatted, and he seemed like a pretty nice guy.  Unfortunately, in that eight-way primary race, Manno didn’t win, and Trone ended up winning the primary and advancing to the general election with around 40% of the vote.  I was surprised that more people didn’t see right through that whole district-hopping thing that he did and realize that he was running for himself above all else.

I remember the discussion about the general election with Elyse after the primary, where, in considering the national trends, I said to her, “Yes, we actually have to vote for the little sonofabitch.”  I didn’t want to, but I also wasn’t about to vote for someone who would help to empower and embolden then-president Donald Trump.  In other words, I picked my battles, and decided that the party of Trump was worse than electing Trone.

And, unsurprisingly, Trone won in the general election, because it’s Maryland, and the 2011 congressional districts were heavily gerrymandered.  The sixth district at that time was drawn specifically to ensure a safe Democratic seat by running a long neck from western Maryland out into heavily Democratic Montgomery County.  For those not familiar, the western part of Maryland is otherwise a fairly Republican-leaning area.  I always found it strange that I was lumped in with western Maryland, but when you’re drawing a district in order to get a specific result, I suppose that’s what happens.  For what it’s worth, the new Maryland congressional map has much more compact districts, and the most recent incarnation of the sixth district makes it “highly competitive” by cutting out a lot of Montgomery County and including all of Frederick County.  That redrawing affects me, as I’m now back in the eighth district with Raskin – a district which now exists entirely within Montgomery County.

So that’s Trone for you.  I have taken a very dim view of him ever since he ran in a district that he is not part of himself.  I’ve remarked in the past that if he ever has any problems, then maybe he should write his own congressman.

Jennifer Lewis, meanwhile, is kind of the opposite of Trone in a lot of ways.  But first, a little background: the sixth district of Virginia is the district that I grew up in and where my parents still reside, and it includes much of the Shenandoah Valley, stretching from Roanoke to Winchester.  It is a very “red” district, having been represented by a Republican for thirty years from 1953 to 1983, and then has been in GOP hands again since 1993.  Additionally, the three most recent representatives have all retired undefeated.  The last time that the sixth district defeated an incumbent was in 1952.  If it tells you anything, Bob Goodlatte, who served 13 terms from 1993 to 2019, had no Democratic opponent for seven of those elections, and was completely unopposed, with no minor party or independent candidates of any kind running, for four of those races.  The lowest percentage of the vote that Goodlatte ever got was 60%, when he was first elected in 1992.  All of that said, it is clearly very hard to unseat an incumbent in that district, i.e. that is about as safe of a seat as you can get.  The incumbent leaves that seat when they want to leave, because the voters keep on sending them back as a matter of routine.

Now, enter Jennifer Lewis.  She is a mental health worker by profession, and also a community activist.  She moved to Waynesboro in 2007, and made her first run for elected office in 2018 in a bid to succeed Goodlatte after he announced his retirement.  She won the Democratic primary with around 40% of the vote, and went on to face Ben Cline, who was then a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, in the general election.  Cline defeated Lewis in the general election, getting 59.7% of the vote.  This was by no means a narrow victory, but it was a worse showing than any of Goodlatte’s races, as Cline had a slightly lower percentage of the total vote than Goodlatte did in 1992.  This result was not surprising, though.  Cline was an established politician, and Lewis was a political novice.  Plus considering the district’s strong Republican lean, I doubt that anyone who voted for Lewis really thought that she had a chance of pulling out a win.

After this race, Lewis quickly pivoted to her next campaign, running for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates to represent district 20, which covers parts of Augusta, Nelson, and Highland Counties as well as the cities of Staunton and Waynesboro.  She was running against John Avoli, the former longtime mayor of Staunton.  Unsurprisingly again, considering the general political makeup of that district (i.e. very red), Avoli won with 58.5% to Lewis’ 41.4%.

Then in January 2020, Lewis made what I considered a surprising announcement, that she was not going to run for Congress in 2020, but that she would run again in 2022.  I viewed this somewhat negatively, since it told me two things.  First, it told me that she was essentially writing off the 2020 election cycle, and conceding it to Cline.  In other words, she assumed that whatever schmuck might run against Cline on the Democratic side was just cannon fodder, i.e. they would definitely be defeated.  It also told me that she thought that people would be content to just sit around and wait until she was ready to run again.  I thought that was an exceptionally cocky statement, and not a good look on her part.  Additionally, by making that statement, she effectively sabotaged a fellow Democrat’s campaign, because if she was already thinking ahead to a 2022 campaign to the point of leapfrogging over the current cycle and announcing her candidacy for the following cycle, she more or less said that there was no point in even bothering with a Democratic campaign in 2020, leaving no room for the idea that there might be even the slimmest of possibilities that a Democrat would take the seat, and thus that a Democrat might end up being the incumbent in 2022.  A Democratic incumbent would almost certainly have screwed up her plans for 2022, since then rather than challenging an incumbent from the opposite party, if she ran with a Democratic incumbent, she would be launching a primary challenge to unseat an incumbent from her own party.  I doubt that she ever considered that, because if she did, she probably wouldn’t have made that sort of idiotic announcement in the first place.  That sort of assumption also speaks volumes about Lewis and the sixth district voters in general, and it caused me to lose a bit of respect for her.  The moral of the story here is that some things are better left unsaid.  She may have always fully intended to sit out the 2020 cycle and then run again in 2022, but she never should have announced her 2022 campaign at the same time that she announced that she was sitting 2020 out.  That announcement should have come much later, like some time in the middle of 2021.

In any event, to no one’s surprise, the Democratic candidate, Nicholas Betts, was defeated, with Cline’s getting 64.6% of the vote to Betts’ 35.3%.  That was consistent with Goodlatte’s results in those races where he had a Democratic opponent.  So the sixth district did what it always does, and sent the incumbent back by a fairly wide margin.

This year, Lewis kept her promise and is running for Congress again, looking to unseat Cline.  I have paid very little attention to this race, because the result is a foregone conclusion as far as I’m concerned.  Cline is going to win in the 60% range, and Lewis will end up with something in the mid 30% range, because that’s just how the sixth district votes.  I am willing to be surprised, but I don’t think that there’s going to be any sort of upset here, especially in a midterm where the Democrats hold the White House (historically, the party that has the White House tends to lose congressional seats in the midterms).  It’s a district where Republicans nearly always win, and I don’t have any reason to think that this race will buck that trend.

Personally, despite that asinine statement about the 2020 and 2022 races, I actually like Jennifer Lewis as a candidate, and I think that she has a solid platform.  I think that she could do a lot of good as an elected official, whether it’s in Congress, the state legislature, or some other role.  I can’t vote for her because I live in Maryland, but I definitely believe in her, and feel that she is genuine about her positions.

So what does this have to do with carpetbagging?  While I feel like she has all of the right stances and actually believes in them, because of the general makeup of the sixth district, she will never get elected from there.  Her best shot there was probably in 2018 when it was an open seat, and while she did get a larger percentage of the vote than any Democrat ever did against Goodlatte, she still lost by a pretty wide margin.  So I feel like unless the demographics shift pretty dramatically for the sixth district (not likely), it is unlikely that the Democrats will prevail there in the foreseeable future.  That said, the thought has crossed my mind that if she is serious about actually being elected and serving in that sort of role, and not just about advocating for progressive causes and raising her own profile for another reason (akin to how some presidential candidates are really running for book deals rather than political office), then she would probably be best served to leave the sixth district and run somewhere else, because no Democrat is going to flip the sixth district any time soon.

But then when I think about how Lewis would probably be well served to jump to another legislative district and run for office there, I also think back to the way that I felt when my carpetbagging congressman did exactly that, jumping districts to try to get elected somewhere else after getting punted in his original district.  After all, I had plenty of colorful things to say about David Trone in regards to his switch from Maryland’s eighth district to the sixth district, and that any support that I might have had for him ended the moment that he hopped districts, because I refused to support a carpetbagger like that, who had no local connection to the district that he was seeking to represent.  I also remember how delighted I was earlier this year when I found out that in the redistricting following the 2020 census, that I was now in the eighth district again, meaning that Jamie Raskin, who actually lives in his own district, is once again my congressman.  So for me, at least, my Trone problem is solved, in the sense that the little weasel is now someone else’s problem.  Therefore, I feel like I am not able to advocate, in good conscience, for Lewis to move to another jurisdiction with demographics that are more favorable to Democrats with the intention of running for office there, even though she’ll get slaughtered every time she goes up to bat as long as she runs in the sixth district.  Yes, I feel like she would make a great elected official, but I just can’t advocate for carpetbagging.

I guess that it all shows that politics are indeed a dirty pool, and that people who try to do the right thing don’t always come through with the results that they want when it’s up to the voters.  Throughout the whole exercise, I think that I was most surprised about how strong my feelings really were about the practice of carpetbagging when it affected me directly.