And just like that: Emmett Hanger has already beaten the Tea Party at its own game

Democrat vs. Republican on whiteJust a couple of weeks ago, 24th District State Sen. Emmett Hanger was looking vulnerable, and I told him as much in what turned into a series of emails between the two of us.

Hanger had just voted with the rest of his Republican Party in approving changes to the state budget effectively killing the Marketplace Virginia Medicaid expansion that he had himself helped to craft earlier this year. In so doing, I offered to the Senate veteran, he had sided with the Tea Party, which is never going to support Hanger, a staunch conservative by pre-2008 terms, who now looks like a centrist moderate with the 2014 GOP ever further to the right, at the expense of his actual constituency, which includes mainstream Republicans, who do still exist, the rumors of their mass deaths having been grossly exaggerated, plus independents and crossover Democrats, myself included in that latter group.

The Tea Party, I reminded Hanger, was lining up its candidates to run against him in 2015, but the battle that I expected him to wage was already lost, because in helping kill Marketplace Virginia, Hanger was sure to lose at the least the crossover Democrats, plus a fair number of the independents and perhaps some of the mainstream Republicans, all of whom are tiring of the new business as usual.

Turns out he had nothing to worry about. Because while the Tea Party is indeed mobilizing against him, the person that the grassroots seems to be coalescing behind, Marshall Pattie, is a former colleague of mine, as a former local Democratic Party committee chair.

I know Pattie well, or I should say, I knew him well. We’re both cut from the same cloth, moderate, centrist Democrats, professed fans of Mark Warner, who worked together during our tenures as Democratic Party chairs to try to bring the local committees more to the center, and who having failed at those efforts both gave up and moved on from party politics. I went back to journalism, at the strong suggestion of a Republican friend, Chris Saxman, a former state delegate, who told me that he felt I had far more influence on the political world as the editor of a news blog than as someone trying to get elected to office. (And he was right.)

Pattie went in the other direction, recasting himself as an independent to run for a seat on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors representing the conservative North River District, and winning that seat in 2011 by an impressive margin. He then continued with the reinvention thing as a board member, voting against tax-rate increases even as the county has struggled to come up with money to provide for basic services.

I’d always assumed that my former cohort was just doing what we both thought a Mark Warner Democrat would do. Republicans, sure, like to paint Democrats as tax and spend and spend and spend more, but Pattie, as a management professor at James Madison University, doesn’t fit that mold, and neither do I, the owner of a 12-year-old small business who has to pay bills and balance budgets every day.

Turns out, in retrospect, that Pattie was angling for something else. I didn’t know this until Sunday, when the news hit that Pattie was going to announce his intentions to challenge Hanger for the Republican nomination in the 24th, but my old friend had begun making the rounds of the GOP circuit two years ago. After working on behalf of Barack Obama and Creigh Deeds, he had quietly, yet also publicly, switched allegiances to Mitt Romney and Ken Cuccinelli, presumably with an eye toward Hanger’s seat in 2015.

And so here we are: 11 months away from what we have to assume will be a party primary to decide on a nominee, and Marshall Pattie, former Augusta County Democratic Committee chair, is running for the Republican Senate nomination, and not only running, but running somehow to the right of Emmett Hanger.

Yes, the political world long ago was officially beyond strange, but this is man-bites-dog even with that as a given.

How this makes it so that Hanger, as I declare in the headline, has already beaten the Tea Party: you’re familiar with the term RINO, I assume. Republican In Name Only. The local Tea Party establishment, hell-bent as it has been for lo, these many years, to put Hanger out to pasture, back so far that there wasn’t even a Tea Party yet when its future leaders first put a scare in the senator, in a 2007 primary that saw him win renomination by a slim margin against Rockbridge County businessman Scott Sayre, has backed itself into a corner from which it appears that a former Democratic Party chairman is the best option to get that job done.

And we’re not talking about about a guy who 20 years ago was a local Democratic Party chair. One local media account on the Pattie candidacy today referenced someone pointing to how Ronald Reagan himself had once been a Democrat. Sure, but three years before leading the Republican Revolution?

Marshall Pattie is a smart, savvy guy, and has all the skills to make an effective state legislator; but that said, this move reeks of opportunism at its worst. Any honest Shenandoah Valley Democrat will tell you that it’s hard to be a good Shenandoah Valley Democrat with political ambition, because it just ain’t going to happen, not in any of our lifetimes, that a Democrat is going to have any chance outside of a local election for a city council. Maybe, maybe the 20th House District seat, currently held by Republican Dickie Bell, whose district includes the cities of Staunton and Waynesboro and half of the heavily Democratic Nelson County, could one day be in play, but even that would require a good Mark Warner Democrat with a lot of money in the back and a lot of tailwinds pushing things in the right direction.

Pattie is saying that he switched parties because the Democratic Party left him; it doesn’t take much to see the genesis of the switch being cold calculation by a guy with an aptitude for crunching numbers and making smart decisions based on the numbers. A centrist Democrat masked as an independent on a county board of supervisors in the Shenandoah Valley has already reached his political ceiling,if not having far surpassed where the ceiling should be; but that State Senate seat held by Emmett Hanger looks mighty inviting, maybe not to a centrist Democrat, because, you know, the word Democrat, but there’s money in them thar hills to Hanger’s right.

It’s almost genius, the almost being that Democrats, who two weeks ago couldn’t care less about Emmett Hanger’s political future, are now bristling over what they see as the betrayal of Marshall Pattie, and that Republicans are bound to start scratching their heads about the donkey in elephant’s clothing with his hand out asking for their money and votes.

I imagine the Hanger campaign taking on the strategy of the matador in a bullfight; the nomination fight becoming a referendum on Marshall Pattie, Democrat, pitted against Marshall Pattie, Republican, a bull running against itself around the ring, in the face of the inevitable.

– Column by Chris Graham

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