Should Local GOP Units Endorse in Non-Partisan Races?

The question has been raised at the last two meetings of the Republican Party of Virginia Beach City Committee, though a proposal to amend the bylaws and undo the local unit’s policy of not endorsing candidates for City Council and School Board has met with some resistance. In short, it probably won’t come to a vote until January of 2018 at the earliest, which is when the members agreed to revisit the issue, citing the priority of this year’s statewide elections and lack of relevant down-ballot races.

To start with, such an idea is not something new. Indeed, the neighboring Chesapeake GOP takes the hands-on approach with local races that some within the Virginia Beach unit seek to employ. In my home state of New Jersey, endorsing one candidate or another in primary and general elections is simply a routine part of election season for county Republican committees when it comes to races all over the ballot.

Perhaps the most obvious objection to such a policy stems from an aversion to division and a desire for unity. I would counter with a lesson from last year’s Mayoral election in Virginia Beach.

To be clear, I have heard nothing but complaining about Mayor Sessoms from local party members since I arrived a couple of years ago. Sessoms, as you may recall, endorsed Terry MacAuliffe for governor in 2013 in spite of the fact that he had been a member of the local Republican party. Folks in politics have very long memories, and this has been held against Sessoms ever since. When the first chance to unseat him post-MacAuliffe endorsement came along, the local party stayed true to their bylaws and didn’t endorse anyone. As a result, Sessoms faced two candidates well to his right, in addition to a third opponent who spent only $100 and could hardly be described as really putting forth an effort. Sessoms retained his seat with ease, garnering 101,251 votes. His three opponents, absurdly outspent, racked up a combined 85,016 votes.

Of course, this is not to say that any of Sessoms’ 2016 opponents had a shot. On the contrary, none of them had the funds to go one on one with the Mayor, and the second place finisher received only 36,329 votes. But the bigger picture here is that just over 85,000 Virginia Beach residents, about 46 percent of voters, cast a ballot for someone other than the current Mayor.

If the local Republicans want to see a change in that office, they’ll need a process by which to clear the field of anti-Sessoms wannabes and get behind one realistic alternative. Perhaps by officially endorsing one specific opponent, to start with.

That being said, one has to wonder what effect such a change would have when the City of Virginia Beach would still have candidates on the ballot with no party affiliation indicated regardless of what a local party chapter may do. This issue would have to be addressed through other means, and doesn’t bear extensive discussion here, but it is worth mentioning.

Proponents of endorsing local candidates must also consider that the general public, weary of politics after the brutal Presidential election last year, may not have an appetite for even more partisanship, particularly when it comes to local offices. What’s more, a clear threshold of votes needed to earn the party’s support must be set so that a small portion of the membership can’t just grant the party’s endorsement to a fringe candidate with no real shot of winning, merely obligating the party to waste resources on their run.

The Republican Party of Virginia Beach should seriously consider all of the potential positives and negatives of getting involved with local races in an official capacity, and they should consult with the Chesapeake GOP to learn more about their procedures.

Cover photo: Virginia Beach