Tuesday, September 14, 2010
If today's primary election goes as predicted, D.C. Democrats will select current Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray as their candidate for the upcoming mayoral election. And, as we all know, in the heavily-Democratic District of Columbia, the candidate who wins the primary election is essentially guaranteed an electoral victory in November. But is this still the case?
Two weeks ago, the campaign of Mayor Adrian Fenty lost a challenge that would have allowed independent voters (those with no party affiliation) to vote in the upcoming primary election. The campaign's reasoning was as follows: if D.C.'s new elections law allows first-time voters to register as Democrats at the polls, then non-affiliated voters should have the same opportunity. However, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics disagreed with that interpretation, which means that over 70,000 independent voters (nearly 17% of the electorate) will be left out of the September 14 primary. Unsurprisingly, Republicans and other minority-party voters that represent an additional 8% of the electorate will similarly be left out of the decisive vote.
It's easy to glean why Fenty was so concerned with getting independent voters out to the polls for the primary. The highest numbers of registered independents are located in Wards 1, 2, and 3; the Mayor's main base of support in the city. The lowest numbers of independent voters are in Wards 5, 7, and 8; where support for the Chairman is strongest. In the last 2006 mayoral primary, 106,000 Democratic voters came out to the polls. The possibility of permitting as many as 70,000 additional voters to come to the polls would have been a game-changing move so late in the primary season.
So what now? If Gray goes on to win the primary as predicted, would Fenty seriously consider mounting a general election challenge as a write-in candidate? Polls show that D.C. residents already perceive Fenty as being arrogant and aloof, so any backlash that might come from mounting a write-in campaign may be somewhat blunted, especially if the primary election is close. Further, while there really isn't any available polling data on the preferences of D.C.'s registered independents, the ward breakdown suggests that Fenty likely has a significant level of support among those voters. In addition, despite over $1.3 million in expenses in the last month, the Fenty campaign still had $809,000 in cash on hand as of September 7. Interestingly, Fenty had a similar amount of cash on hand at this point in his 2006 campaign when he was running well ahead of his challenger, then-Council Chair Linda Cropp. Still, the cash advantage is sizable compared to the Gray campaign's $443,000 in reserves.
The "just results" theme of the Fenty's campaign has been highly successful in heightening the public's perception of city services and quality of life, but gains in those areas have not necessarily translated into support for the Mayor himself. Instead, Fenty has focused going back to his original grassroots campaign, knocking on doors, and speaking with voters to get people out to the polls. Apparently, some in the Gray campaign are worried about just such a plan. But if Gray prevails in the primary as expected, Fenty is basically left to either support his challenger or mount write-in campaign.
Write-in campaigns are a mixed bag in D.C. since they require a huge amount of campaign resources to educate voters and a high level of intensity among supporters. Former Mayor Anthony Williams ran a successful write-in campaign in the 2002 Democratic primary, but that move followed problems getting enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot and not his underlying level of support. Last election, Republican Carol Schwartz's write-in campaign to retain her at-large council seat was moderately successful but still failed in a three-way vote between GOP candidate Patrick Mara and independent Michael A. Brown, who ended up winning the seat. In this year's mayoral race, the D.C. Republican Party is not fielding a candidate and has lined up solidly in support of the incumbent Mayor. If a groundswell of GOP voters, Fenty Democrats, and independent supporters are willing to come out in November to support a write-in candidacy, the Mayor might actually have a shot at retaining his job. It's a big "if", but we'll find out tonight.
Image provided by: Wayan Vota with Creative Commons License 2.0