Local Dems have eyes set on 24th prize

Column by Chris Graham

With Republicans in the 24th Senate District now openly fighting amongst themselves, Democrats in the Valley are content to sit back and let them brawl away.

“We recognize our nominee will have work to build a campaign and name recognition, and that has already started behind the scenes while the GOP brawl is quite public,” said Tom Long, the chairman of the Augusta County Democratic Committee, confirming today that Democrats in the 24th do plan to run a candidate in the November general election.

Long said that one candidate has pre-filed for a May 24 party mass meeting where a nominee for the seat – currenly held by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger – will be named.

Hanger, a moderate-conservative, is facing what is shaping up to be the fight of his political life from conservative Buena Vista businessman Scott Sayre, who has the backing of the Virginia Conservative Action PAC and conservative kingmaker and former House speaker Vance Wilkins.

A June 12 GOP primary win by Sayre – which seems entirely plausible and even likely in the minds of some political observers – would seem to open up the general election in November to a possible Democratic Party triumph.

Democrats had held the seat in the 24th for decades before Hanger’s 1995 win over long-time incumbent Frank Nolen.

“Democrats have to be looking at this and thinking, Great, let’s let the Republicans use up their money, let them beat each other up, and depending on what happens after the primary, maybe we have the opportunity to bring somebody into that race,” said Sean O’Brien, the executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

A third candidate will compete in the November general election with the major-party nominees – Arin Sime, an Albemarle County Libertarian who is, like Sayre, a staunch fiscal conservative.

A Sayre-Sime-Democrat three-way could throw enough votes from Hanger moderates and independents into the Democratic Party camp to give the eventual nominee a plurality – though the Dems have to be careful who they consider for their nomination.

“If Democrats are being strategic, and that looks to be the case right now, they won’t nominate people for any of those seats who are seen as being liberal,” O’Brien said. “They’ll nominate people who are potentially even dabbling with being Republicans – to try to prove that the moderate Republican voters have the option of coming over and voting Democrat as opposed to seeing a Scott Sayre who is more conservative than Emmett Hanger take the seat.
“The incentive is there for Democrats to say, You, the broad group of people in this district, have been used to a certain kind of leadership, and you’ve been happy with it, and now the extremists in the other party forced somebody on you that you aren’t comfortable with. Look to so-and-so, and they’ll probably work very hard to make sure that that person that they pick is a well-identified moderate,” O’Brien said.

(Originally published 05-21-07)

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