After a bruising election cycle, conservative activists in Virginia are licking their wounds and plotting their next moves. It’s a collective dark night of the soul, and it doesn’t show signs of lifting anytime soon. But one thing seems clear: Something has to give.
With a complex conflict in a large geographic area, it’s tempting to oversimplify and draw false dichotomies. But dichotomies can be helpful, so indulge me for a bit.
In Virginia, it’s easy to divide state Republicans into two groups. Most would draw some sort of line between the grassroots and the establishment — say, the Tea Party versus GOP loyalists — and those types of designations are indeed helpful.
But the most useful dichotomy might be this one: One group of Virginia conservatives advocates using the primary process to choose nominees; the other advocates nominating conventions. That’s because they argue it’s a more effective way to hold elected officials accountable. Primary advocates say, among other arguments, that the conventions give disproportionate power to activists and keep more centrist voters from having as much of a say in the nominating process.
That’s a fairly wonky distinction, but it helps clarify the rift in Virginia’s GOP politics that helped pave the way to a once-inconceivable outcome: Governor Terry McAuliffe. It’s a rift that is deep, persistent, and very problematic for future conservative victories in the state.
It’s a proxy war, but a messy and important one — important not only to Old Dominion politics nerds, but also to anyone who’s interested in Mark Warner’s Senate seat or the state’s Electoral College votes in 2016. Virginia is a big deal. Therefore Virginia Republicans are a big deal. And, therefore, an insurmountable rift could have national implications.
At least, that’s the view from just north of the Potomac. Not everyone sees it that way. Rick Boyer, a homeschooling father, Liberty University graduate, longtime conservative activist in the Old Dominion, and chair of the Republican party in the state’s 22nd congressional district, says he’s not especially interested in intraparty reconciliation just yet.
“To some extent, I would say, ‘Bring that fight on,’” he says. “It’s a long fight in coming. The much-dreaded Republican civil war to some extent needs to happen. It’s a clarifying and defining process. It’s not just fratricide for fratricide. The party needs to decide what we are.”
The tension is nothing new. Virginia doesn’t register voters by party, so primaries are always open. That means that Democrats can vote in Republicans’ primaries and vice versa. Russ Moulton, a close friend of the defeated gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s and a former GOP chairman in the first congressional district, explains that the debate over how to choose candidates has been going on for decades, and tempers among grassroots conservatives have flared the whole time.
Conventions give more power to diehard political devotees, and less to the mélange of less-than-devout voters (Republicans and Democrats) who show up on primary day.
Both sides use that fact as an argument in their favor.
Linwood Cobb, the GOP chairman in the seventh congressional district, argues that conventions can disenfranchise Republican voters who have less time on their hands.
“There’s not many people who want to go sit in the Richmond Convention Center for twelve hours on a weekend,” he says.
Over the course of his involvement in Virginia Republican-party politics — he joined the Henrico County GOP the day after Bill Clinton was first elected, and he’s been active ever since — Cobb has supported both conventions and primaries. But now he’s a firm believer that primaries work best.
“If you can’t mount a statewide campaign to win the party nomination, why do you think you can mount a statewide campaign to beat the Democrats?” he asks.
The brewing conflict came to a head when a coalition of tea partiers, libertarians, social conservatives, and other grassroots activists organized to take over the Republican Party of Virginia State Central Committee (usually called State Central) in 2012 and then voted to have a nominating convention instead of a primary. Chris Stearns, a libertarian-leaning activist from southeast Virginia, says it was the first time in state history that State Central was run by activists, rather than political consultants and staffers. Cuccinelli won the nomination for governor; the politically radioactive pastor E. W. Jackson, the nomination for lieutenant governor; and Obenshain, the nomination for attorney general. And all three lost, giving Democrats their first statewide sweep in decades.