The Richmond Times-Dispatch has clearly made the call that the race to replace outgoing State Senator Walter Stosch is between former Delegate Bill Janis and Dr. Siobhan Stolle-Dunnavant.
The focus has a lot to do with the fact that Janis and Dunnavant are the only two candidates to go up with television ads, I suspect — and indication of financial strength, to be sure:
Former Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico, released a commercial that takes aim at “phony politicians and empty promises” and touts his legislative experience and record on opposing taxes and supporting gun rights.
Dr. Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN, has a commercial featuring babies and blaming lawyers and “cry-baby politicians” for political dysfunction in government and for drafting “Obamacare” — which Dunnavant opposes and says will be among the issues on which she “delivers” if elected.
One interesting shot in all of this? State Senator Don McEachin has been a tad bit surprised with Dunnavant’s shift away from Medicaid expansion:
Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, said that when he and Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, met with Dunnavant toward the end of the 2015 legislative session, “what was shared with me is that she was for Medicaid expansion.”
McEachin said he was “surprised” and “disheartened” to see Dunnavant come out so strongly against the issue in her ad.
Of course, Dunnavant denies this… though those around her campaign are practically a who’s who of Marketplace Virginia and Healthy Virginia Works supporters. Stosch has clearly chosen a side, even if he hasn’t formally endorsed.
Most observes seem to think this is Janis’ race to lose. They are probably right. Janis has been holding steady and has been aggressively knocking doors around SEN-12, is well financed, and knows the ins and outs of the game.
While contenders such as Eddie Whitlock are (happily) holding on to the bitter end, the race does seem to be winding down towards a Janis-Dunnavant fistfight.
…which leaves Vince Haley as the alternative.
Let’s be honest here. Statewide, Tea Party challengers are cruising to a pretty bone-crushing defeat (though most Tea Partiers will claim similar things were said in 2014 with polls showing Cantor with 70% of the electorate over “liberal college professor” Dave Brat). This is universally true with one exception: Haley’s campaign in SEN-12.
What’s different? The architect of the VA-07 upset, Zach Werrell, is managing the campaign. That speaks volumes, as Werrell is probably pound for pound the best campaign manager in Virginia right now on either side.
Second, if one is to accuse Haley of being a “Beltway Insider” then he has certainly chosen his friends well: Newt Gingrich, Reagan staffers, and who’s who of the Catholic conservative right.
Third, voter enthusiasm has proven to be a critical factor in most of these races, and the Tea Party organizers that haven’t lost their 2009-era grassroots enthusiasm remember this. It’s the reason why Brat beat Cantor — with a healthy dose of Democratic crossover voting, but a factor outside of anyone’s control. Fact of the matter is, if Haley’s voters are motivated, and they are, they are going to turn out in volume. If Janis and Dunnavant voters are merely mildly enthused and stay home on a glorious (or extremely hot) June day, that plays right into Haley’s hands. If the negative digs between Janis and Dunnavant continue with any intensity, Haley will be the beneficiary.
There are a number of other factors propelling Haley at this rate: Janis’ 2011 Matt Geary race, flirtations with Medicaid expansion on the part of Dunnavant, and the zeitgeist of the 7th District. Conservatives have effectively split the vote, and the libertarian populists have found a wedge that works.
Still, there are messages that are working for Janis. Janis is the only one to actually do many of the things the others talk about. In short, the campaign makes the argument that with Janis you can get 95-97% of what you want as a conservative. A compelling argument when many feel as if their politicians only give them 50% or less on issues that matter. For that reason alone, on Medicaid expansion, Dunnavant is in serious trouble despite her stellar pro-life credentials.
…and that really has to be the story of the SEN-12 campaign. Functionally, there’s very little that separates most of the candidates. All four are Catholic. Three are lawyers, one is a doctor. Three have never held public office, one has. Two have seen military service, two have not. All four are political insiders to one degree or another. In the balance, would anyone be terribly upset if any of the four actually emerged victorious? Probably not.
Yet on the differences with distinction, Dunnavant loses on Medicaid expansion. Between Janis and Haley, the litmus test is really against Janis’ record as a delegate. Either it was excellent, good enough, or deplorable. Tough to make the latter argument… and it was clear in the debate that while Janis clearly knew his stuff, Haley gets it from the perspective of Washington’s impact on Richmond with a Gingrich-style flavor for big, bold ideas.
Were the race on social issues such as the right to life, Dunnavant would have a shot… but spending the race convincing people she is solid against Medicaid expansion is a tough, uphill road. Engaging in an early fight with Janis only benefits Haley.
Janis remains your frontrunner in SEN-12. As Dunnavant unloads her warchest, don’t be surprised to see Haley rising in the last weeks of the campaign.