Last night I blogged about the bombshell news that Jim McKelvey, Bedford real estate developer and conservative candidate for the Republican nomination in the 5th District of Virginia, had loaned himself half a million dollars. He's now sitting on $500,000 cash on hand before the primary really heats up. This puts him into the same category of Robert Hurt and Laurance Verga for having the cash needed to run a top notch campaign.
But last night I also noted on twitter that money isn't everything. I compared McKelvey's cash on hand to the amount that Eric Cantor spent in 2000 to win the Republican nomination in the 7th District. Cantor spent around $800,000 and won by a nose, 263 votes, against State Senator Martin in a primary that was practically 50%-50%. Martin barely raised $200,000 in the primary and Eric Cantor also had the support of the Republican establishment with the backing of then Governor Jim Gilmore. And he barely, just barely, won.
The story is similar but slightly different in the 1st District that same year, when Jo Ann Davis defeated Paul Jost for the Republican nomination. Jost dropped almost $1 million into the primary, Davis barely spent $100,000. Jost also had the support of Jim Gilmore. But Davis pulled out a victory and went on to serve in Congress.
Both of these primaries showed an interesting split between the two leading candidates (the 1st had some other candidates thrown in). There was one candidate who had the clear cash advantage and the backing of the Republican establishment. And there was another candidate with the backing of the grassroots on the ground soldiers for the Republican Party, the religious and social conservatives. That was enough for Davis to win, but not enough for Martin. He came damn close though.
Anyone who has worked in local politics knows the difference that social conservatives can make for the Republican Party. I remember talking to my few liberal friends back in the 1990s when social conservatives were making a strong effort to win at the local level on school boards and boards of supervisors. My liberal friends were shocked that such "extremists" were somehow winning by strong margins.
Social conservatives matter because they are active members of their community. They go to church, they are involved in the PTA, their kids play baseball or soccer. They are the neighbor you depend on when you go away and you need someone to feed the cats or just watch the house. When they run for local office everyone knows them. Liberals aren't active in their communities, they don't volunteer, they don't go to church, they don't have families and kids.
With her experience on the school board, Feda Morton knows what it takes to get conservatives involved at the grassroots level. For all of the talk about the Tea Party movement, there's also a wing of the Republican Party that's just as scared by Obama's proposal to allow gays in the military. Or to pass a huge socialist health care package that will fund abortions with your taxpayer dollars. The 5th District has these hard working conservatives, like Tim Boyer over in Campbell County.
But 2010 will be more than a repeat of 2000. It's not just the Republican establishment candidate with more money running against a candidate with roots in the local conservative community. There's a twist now. Robert Hurt has cash and the Republican establishment, but he's not the only one with cash. And we don't just have the traditional base of social conservatives, but a new and growing movement of Tea Partiers worried about the economic implications of Obama's liberal agenda.
That's going to make this primary more difficult to predict.
I noted last night that in the Cantor-Martin race the two candidates matched each other in their geographic bases of support. Cantor ran well in Henrico, Martin in Chesterfield. Cantor narrowly won the election by winning in the remaining portions of the district, the vast rural stretches of the 7th that go out to Culpepper and beyond. He was able to do so because he had the cash advantage to reach and win over the Republican voters who had never heard of Cantor or Martin before.
That's why I stress over and over again that Robert Hurt's "Southside" credentials are overstated. Representing a corner of the 5th District isn't going to give him a natural advantage over any other candidate in Prince Edward, Mecklenburg, or Halifax. Who knows who Robert Hurt is in Bedford? Appomattox? Aside from the County Chairs that listened to his plea for a primary. Three candidates, so far, have the money to campaign and win in the areas outside their natural and geographic bases of support. But there's also the chance that these big spenders will cancel each other out and allow for a candidate with strong grassroots appeal, either to social conservatives or Tea Partiers or both, to still win.