Local Republicans see a silver lining in the lopsided defeat of Mike McMenamin in Tuesday’s Arlington County Board. But one local political watcher says it signals that the narrow window of opportunity to elect conservatives to local office in Arlington has passed.
McMenamin, an independent candidate with the endorsement of the local GOP, garnered 19 percent of the vote to 36 and 34 percent respectively for Democrats Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol. Perennial candidate Audrey Clement, who ran as an independent after several elections under the Green Party banner, received 10 percent of the vote.
Democrats say they were pleasantly surprised by the election results.
“It turned out much better than I predicted it to be,” said Arlington County Democratic Committee Chair Kip Malinosky. “I think people responded to an inclusive, welcoming message.”
“We always took [McMenamin] seriously,” Malinosky continued. “We knew he had a good record of public service. But we didn’t hear a positive vision for Arlington from Mike. Voters heard a lot of ‘no.'”
Matt Wavro, Chair of the Arlington County Republican Committee, sees things a bit differently. Via email, he told ARLnow.com that all four candidates in the race ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility — a victory of sorts, even though the GOP’s favored candidate did not win.
Mike ran a solid independent campaign. The Arlington GOP was very proud to endorse his independent candidacy. Mike’s earnest desire to bring people together to solve issues facing the county should be acknowledged by everyone involved in politics in Arlington.
The future of the Arlington GOP is strong. Our goals of cancelling the streetcar, reducing the cost of the Million Dollar Bus Stop, ending the subsidy of the Artisphere, preventing a property tax rate increase, and turning back the plan to build subsidized housing in our parks enjoyed and continue to enjoy wide community support.
With the exception of a firm commitment that subsidized housing should not be built in parks, every candidate for the County Board campaigned on our issues. Even the candidates who were leveling partisan attacks against Mike were trying to appropriate the very issues we considered as the basis for endorsing Mike.
Democrats on the County Board were very effective in 2015 at clearing the decks of issues that highlighted how out of touch narrowly partisan Democrats were from their more rational and reasonable neighbors of all political persuasions.
“Looking out at the issues that are likely to be taken up in the next year, our platform will continue to be a consensus-building counter-point to the partisan Democrat group-think we saw from our County Board members in 2013 and the decade prior,” Wavro added.
Despite Wavro’s optimism, one veteran Democratic campaign operative and election watcher thinks the result shows a return to normalcy in heavily-Democratic Arlington after a brief flirtation with center-right politics.
“It’s back to normal in Arlington,” Ben Tribbett told ARLnow.com. “The voters Tuesday were strongly Democratic, where they’ve always been.”
Tribbett, who correctly predicted the demise of Arlington’s streetcar project on the night of independent County Board member John Vihstadt’s election last November, said McMenamin’s defeat is “embarrassing” for Vihstadt.
“Vihstadt’s endorsement [of McMenamin] had no legs, voters basically ignored it,” Tribbett said.
The center-right flirtation was made possible by the streetcar, the Long Bridge Park aquatics center and other poorly managed, big-ticket projects that drew voter ire. With those out of the way, and with all candidates calling for some degree of fiscal responsibility, voters returned to other issues as deciding factors — issues that favored the Democrats.
(Other political watchers have suggested that it wasn’t just the streetcar that propelled Vihstadt to victory, arguing that he was a uniquely strong candidate with a long history of community involvement, thoughtful debate performances and well-tuned political acumen. There are no other Vihstadt-like candidates on the Republican-slash-Independent bench, some say.)
The Arlington electorate seems to have “lost their appetite for reform-type candidates,” Tribbett contended. That, he said, could signal trouble for Libby Garvey, who’s up for reelection in 2016.
Garvey, a Democrat, went against the party by speaking out against the streetcar and endorsing Vihstadt last year. She could face a tough primary challenge this coming spring as a result.