By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)
He’s building his campaign organization as he goes, and riding a wave of good press.
But state Sen. H. Russell Potts, Jr., R-Winchester, ack-nowledges that being the only candidate for governor without a party establishment behind him makes his job more difficult.
Potts, who is running as an independent against Republican former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore and Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, said Tuesday that his campaign is tapping into voter frustration to build momentum.
“Is it nice to have a party structure? Sure,” he said. “[But] you have to realize that the two organized parties aren’t nearly what they were 20 years ago.”
Party support is “definitely overrated,” he said. “If that vaunted Republican machine is so powerful, how come they could only turn out 4 percent” for the primary?
Still, Potts and other candidates had to have some paid help to get on the ballot that their opponents didn’t.
According to information from the Virginia Public Access Project, Potts was one of three statewide candidates who paid people to circulate nominating petitions for either the June 14 or Nov. 8 ballot.
Consultants and workers were paid some $16,000 to gather signatures — Potts turned in almost 25,000, and said Tuesday that the minimum of 10,000 have been found valid.
Steve Baril, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for attorney general last week, and state Sen. Phil Puckett, D-Tazewell, who failed to win the Democratic nod for lieutenant governor, spent some $26,000 and $5,000, respectively.
The other 10 candidates reported no such expenditures.
“All the candidates find that necessary to [pay circulators] because Virginia is such a large state,” Potts said.
But “the overwhelming majority of my petitions were collected by all these constituencies like high school athletic directors, … Moose, Elks and Eagles clubs members.”
The people who circulated his petitions for free are the same people responsible for a wave of support — including support from columnists and editorial writers around the state.
“It isn’t about me, it’s about Virginia [and] the direction of politics” in the commonwealth, Potts said.
Potts is right that party backing isn’t what it used to be, according to Paul Achter, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond.
Now, one of the first jobs is to build name recognition and a bit of campaign buzz. “Party support comes later,” he said. But the importance of having an “R” or a “D” after a candidate’s name hasn’t gone away completely.
“Party support is extremely important to the success of a candidate. Most people run for office … as a member of a political party,” said Bill Shendow, director of the Marsh Institute for Government and Public Policy at Shenandoah University.
Voters tend to identify with parties, so running one way or the other brings instant voter affiliation, no matter how few voters know the candidate, he said.
That being said, statewide office in Virginia can be won without having the Virginia Republican or Democratic parties behind a candidate, he said, pointing to former Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., who won as an independent.
A quick groundswell of support from nowhere might be the novelty of an independent run in the minds of voters, Achter said.
“Voters vote against establishment politicians, sometimes, as a matter of style,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said for that kind of appeal. That appeal is refreshing to voters … and anyone else who makes politics a part of their daily life.
“The question becomes, ‘Are people thinking about an independent running for governor, or are they thinking about Potts specifically?’”
While he declined to comment on the treatment Potts has received to date, Achter did say that “outsiders” sometimes do get a honeymoon.
“Sometimes lesser-known candidates get free rides simply because voters have more to go on when thinking about established candidates,” he said.
But once today’s novelty has become tomorrow’s known quantity, the honeymoon can end quickly.
“Once the cycle catches up to you, once good investigative reporting is done on you, once the oppositional research has been done on you, things change,” Achter said.
But there’s also a good chance that Potts is more than the flavor of the month, according to Shendow.
“I know Senator Potts personally. His is a unique phenomenon,” Shendow said. “He’s just saying what he believes outright. I think that’s having an effect.”
The question is, “how large will that effect be?” he said.