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Jill Vogel’s Puzzling Lurch to the Right

Northern Virginia’s three term State Senator Jill Holtzman Vogel announced she was running for Lieutenant Governor last March [1].

Vogel has long been considered a rising star within the Virginia Republican Party, and she has been a solid member of Tommy Norment’s Senate leadership team in the General Assembly.  By all accounts, she has been an effective leader, and has governed responsibly.  Until she began running for Lieutenant Governor, she would have been considered the archetype for an establishment Republican.  A+ rating from the NRA, endorsements from a bipartisan roster of organizations including the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Education Association, Virginia’s largest teachers’ union, and awards and 100% rankings from a variety of groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Northern Virginia Chamber Partnership.

Since she entered the race for Lieutenant Governor, however, a strange metamorphosis has begun.  From someone who has spent most of her career as a “law and order” style Republican, she has begun what can only be called a lurch to the right, suddenly taking up far right social causes, earning endorsements from controversial social warriors within the party, and focusing her attacks on national issues that she can’t impact as Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor.

Her most recent fundraising appeal, for example, focused largely on the transgender-in-schools issue, making the hyperbolic claim that the Obama Administration was “compelling Virginia public schools to impose a radical agenda on our children.”

This fundraising letter comes on the heels of a number of odd endorsements that have left some Virginia political observers scratching their heads.  First, Vogel received the endorsement of E.W. Jackson [2], our last LG nominee, whose far right social conservative views were widely considered by critics – fairly or unfairly (and I think probably unfairly) to be an anchor on the GOP ticket [3] in 2013.  She then received endorsements [4] from RPV hater and original Brat Packer Ron Hedlund and Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation President Rick Buchanan, both of whom are highly outspoken outsiders who find attacking establishment Republicans as easy as breathing.  This led Bearing Drift‘s Editor-in-Chief Jim Hoeft to conclude that Vogel “is attempting to position herself as the “outsider” in this campaign.”

This positioning does not make a lot of sense given the entire arc of her Senate career – one that has been marked by loyalty to the GOP, an ability work with fellow Republicans, and positions that were well within the mainstream, if not slightly to the left, of your average conservative Republican elected official.

It also doesn’t make a lot of sense given the current LG field.  Like her currently announced opponents, Senator Bryce Reeves and Delegate Glenn Davis, she’s got a voting record that can be reviewed.  Upon review, that record demonstrates that Senator Vogel is and has been what she appears to be – a mainstream Northern Virginia Republican who has voted, for the most part, in line with her party. Where she has differed, those differences have tended towards the center, not the far right.  She certainly does not have the voting record of a hard charging partisan outsider in the Donald Trump or Ted Cruz mold.  Nor a social conservative crusader like E.W. Jackson.  Her record, in fairness, is very similar to Senator Reeves’.

Comparing her Project Vote Smart voting record [5] on specific bills with Senator Reeves [6], for example, you see that their voting histories are very similar. Of the 23 votes that Project Vote Smart tracked in this year’s legislative session where both Senator Reeves and Senator Vogel voted, they voted the same 16 out of 23 times, and co-patroned one piece of legislation – a bill to allow reciprocity for out of state concealed carry permit holders as part of the deal brokered to get around Mark Herring’s political activism against guns [7].  Of an additional 20 bills that Project Vote Smart tracked going back to 2012, when both Vogel and Reeves voted, they voted the same 17 out of 20 times.

Where Vogel and Reeves differ is on a handful of traffic and discrimination issues where Vogel has the better, albeit arguably less conservative, record.  She voted in favor of prohibiting drivers from opening car doors into bicycle riders, higher penalties for texting, she supported no-excuse in-person absentee voting, authorizing the Equal Rights Amendment (that would amend the Constitution to prohibit sex based discrimination), and prohibiting employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history – all positions Reeves opposed.

She also voted in favor of two bills (along with Senator Norment), SB 12 [8] and SB 67 [9], that would prohibit gender identity and sexual orientation based discrimination in employment and housing practices.  Reeves voted against both.  This is especially striking, given the tone of her fundraising missive, in which she claimed “it’s time for leadership on the transgender issue in our schools.”  It’s hard to square the circle where she can support efforts to bar gender identity based discrimination in housing and employment, but supports it in schools.

In most of these situations, Senator Vogel voted with the more mainstream and/or moderates in the party – supporting things like the ERA and fighting things like discrimination – positions you don’t see hardcore social conservatives taking, much less voting for.  These were arguably the better positions in my opinion – the GOP should support more absentee voting, ending discrimination in all forms, and the like – but they weren’t the positions the type of candidate she is positioning herself to be in the LG nomination race would take.

It’s obvious that Senator Vogel is trying to stake out a lane in the LG race, but the lane she appears to have chosen is one that she is not well suited to fit.  Trying to run a Trump style appeal to disaffected social conservatives who are likely convention goers makes sense, but not everybody can do that successfully.  Only an actual outsider with a consistent socially conservative activism history could do that.

Senator Vogel – to her credit – is not one.  She’s can’t plausibly claim to be one.  She’s been in the Senate for almost a decade, and she’s been in the Senate Republican Leadership as a caucus whip.  So when she says things like “[i]t’s time for Republicans to stand for something” – which was a quote from the transgender fundraising solicitation – it begs the question of what she thinks she and her fellow Republicans have been doing for the last ten years.

That rhetoric appeals to the Dave Brat base of GOP voters who hate their own party as much as they do the Democrats, but those are voters that she’s unlikely to receive, especially if a true outsider decides to throw his hat into the ring for Lieutenant Governor.

This lurch to the right makes slightly more sense if one assumes that the LG nomination will be chosen in a convention, but that’s a risky bet to place right now.  This year’s State Central Committee elections gave primary supporters a small majority.  At the same time Senator Vogel appears to be planning for a potential convention challenge, she’s also raising money as if she expects a primary [10].  The lurch also makes sense if she does not expect any real outsiders to enter the race, but given how many people are talking about running for LG, and the prospects that a Trump presidency could have on the ambitions of many who have never tried their hands at electoral politics before, that also seems like a risky bet to place right now.

It’s unlikely that Vogel will be able to maintain the guise of a social conservative very long given her voting record.  A whisper campaign against her has already begun, with anti-Vogel smears being spread around the Commonwealth via anonymous email accounts.  Those emails have mainly focused on criticizing her record on guns and abortion and have largely been ham-fisted attempts at obscuring her record.  They’ve not been effective, given that they have been largely ignored, but they represent but a taste of what is to come down the road if she continues trying to paint herself as an outsider.  If there’s one thing the Brat-style activists hate more than an establishment politician, it’s an establishment politician trying to pretend they’re “grassroots.”

Vogel’s flirtation with the far right also doesn’t make much sense, given that it is likely to turn off many of the moderates and establishment Republicans she will be counting on both during the nomination fight and the general election.  Moderates and establishment Republicans are truly sick and tired of being treated like the bad guys, especially within the GOP and especially by GOP elected officials pandering to the baser instincts of the populists among us.

Overall, Vogel’s positioning right now just doesn’t make a lot of sense, even understanding why she may be doing it.  At best, it’s a poorly reasoned strategy.  At worse, it’s evidence of a candidate who is struggling to find an identity in the Trump GOP.  Whatever the reason, Senator Vogel should pause to regroup and decide if this is truly the campaign she wants to be running today.