In recent elections for the Harrisonburg City Council, both the Republican and Democratic Parties have fielded a full slate of candidates for office. Most years independents run as well, and, for the first and so far only time, in 2014 the Libertarian Party had a candidate too.
However, 2016 is proving to be an odd year. Three council seats are up for election and the window for candidates to file is now closed. Two sitting members, Kai Degner (a Democrat) and Abe Shearer (an independent) are not running for re-election, while a third member, Richard Baugh (a Democrat) is seeking office again. As is typical, the Democratic Party has three candidates for these three seats, Deanna Reed and Paul Somers join Mr. Baugh. George Hirschmann is running as an independent. However, in a previously unheard of move, the Harrisonburg Republican Party has nominated zero candidates for city council.
I cannot recall the last time the Republican Party didn’t nominate at least one candidate for city council, let alone a full slate of two to three candidates. It does beg the question, has the Harrisonburg Republican Party given up?
Back in 2003 and 2004, I lived in the city of Charlottesville. During that time, they held an election for city council, but curiously none of the Republican candidates ever made mention of their Republican label. If I recall correctly, in the ensuing election the Democratic candidates won easily. Throughout that election the mood of Charlottesville Republicans was one of inevitable defeat, as you might imagine it was a very depressing scene. Has this same realization hit the Harrisonburg Republicans? After all, only one Republican candidate has won in Harrisonburg when facing a Democratic opponent since the 2009 elections.
I am reasonably certain that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will not win the city of Harrisonburg. Therefore, running under the same banner of Trump will likely drag Republican city council candidates down in much the same way that Mitt Romney hurt the 2012 Republican city council candidates. If we saw a bunch of independents in this cycle, that reasoning could very well explain the lack of Republican candidates. However, as mentioned, there is only one independent this time. Conversely, has the Harrisonburg Republican Party jettisoned any and all semblance of political principles so that no self-respecting conservative or libertarian would consider taking up their mantle? Although I believe that the Harrisonburg Republican Party doesn’t really have any interest in advancing the ideals of limiting government, that still doesn’t explain why there are only four candidates running for the three seats.
Unfortunately, I believe that Harrisonburg is transitioning into a single-party city, much like the Byrd machine of last century. Although not insurmountable…at least yet, I would argue that affiliation with the Democratic Party gives a candidate an instant advantage. Given the growing voting JMU student population and the far more effective Democratic college outreach than Republican, coupled with a weak, ineffective, and often surrendering Republican leadership at the Congressional level, and that the GOP at the local, state, and national level have nominated some candidates over the years that are virtually indistinguishable from their Democratic opponents when it comes to policy has created an climate where the Democratic Party now thrives and the Republicans have found themselves on the brink of extinction.
Some people theorize that 2016 might spell the end of the Republican Party as a major, national political party in the United States. Much like the demise of the Whigs in the 1850s, a new or existing political party will rise up to take its place. Well, whether it survives nationally or not, does the lack of Republican candidates in the 2016 elections for city council coupled with a Facebook page which hasn’t been updated in over six months and a dead link to their seemingly defunct website mean that the Republican Party is no longer a factor in Harrisonburg politics?