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.
As one might expect, there are a plethora of competing explanations for the loss: Conventions don’t work, outspoken social conservatives are dead on arrival come Election Day, establishment Republicans betrayed grassroots activists, etc. The fact that Cuccinelli lost by such a narrow margin makes it hard to analyze what caused the loss. Advocates of conventions argue that his defeat should be chalked up to turncoat establishment Republicans, and they cite as proof the fact that he was outspent by $15 million but lost by only two points. Supporters of primaries say that McAuliffe was such a flawed candidate that no one viable could possibly have an excuse for losing to him. In other words, Virginia Republicans don’t agree on why they lost, which is making it that much harder for them to agree on what they need to do to win. But, as it stands, the perception of who’s to blame might actually be more important than reality.
Stearns says that he knows party officials who voted for McAuliffe out of frustration that Cuccinelli was the nominee. This is more than merely unpleasant disagreement.
“It would have been nice to have the lieutenant governor of Virginia [Republican Bill Bolling] stumping for the gubernatorial nominee of our party,” Stearns adds. The lieutenant governor had expected to be the GOP gubernatorial nominee, but those hopes were vaporized when the party decided to have a nominating convention, and he kept himself at an arm’s-length distance from the race.
Today, loyalist Republicans — who skew pro-primary — and newcomer grassroots activists are in the same years-old standoff.
Amanda Chase, a former political director for numerous Virginia Republicans including Eric Cantor, says that the two groups have totally different rubrics for choosing which candidates to support.
“Grassroots conservatives want to know if the candidate will support and uphold the Constitution,” she says, “while party faithful are super focused on electability and the amount of money a candidate can raise.”
“It’s considered treasonous to speak out against a Republican elected official who doesn’t adhere to the GOP-creed principle of fiscal restraint,” she adds. “As a result, many conservatives no longer identify themselves as Republican but as independent, Conservative, Tea Party, or Libertarian. Yet they show up at Republican conventions and primaries to try to return the party to the principles that they feel the GOP has abandoned.”
Chase was working for Cantor when the Tea Party was first beginning to organize, she says. She was impressed by the fact that the political newcomers were so interested in exploring issues and holding members of the Republican party accountable. That stood in contrast to the modus operandi of Virginia Republican politics, she adds.
And the two groups aren’t huge fans of each other. “Establishment Republicans can view Tea Party and libertarian activists as being a little less reasonable,” Chase says. “They’re kind of seen as rabble-rousers. Tea Party and libertarians, they are more focused on principle and whether you follow the Constitution. Set party aside, set personality aside.”
The challenge, she believes, is finding candidates who can appeal to both groups.
“Sometimes the Tea Party and the grassroots, we can be unreasonable,” she continues. “People like Eric [Cantor] who have been in there for a while, they know the reality of how things are and what they’re able to do and what they can’t do.”
The race for Republican representative Frank Wolf’s old seat in Northern Virginia should be a bellwether for whether the two sides will coalesce behind one candidate.
Bobbie Kilberg, a long-time Republican operative and president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, expects the race to be revealing. She’s a vocal advocate of primaries and is eager for center-right Republicans to have more influence in picking the nominee.
“The business community and centrists have not asserted their clout, and it’s time they did so,” she says. “Once they do so, you’ll have a conversation from strength about the direction of the party that would include all sides. So it will be a very interesting year.”
“Interesting” is an apt descriptor. The next few months will show just how surmountable the primary–convention rift is. And the D.C. suburbs and exurbs will be ground zero.
“We’re certainly reeling, having come off the loss in Cuccinelli’s race,” says Cuccinelli’s friend Moulton. The endgame, of course, is to unite the party behind a winnable candidate for Senate. It’s hard to bring together such disparate groups without one person as a rallying point. Virginia Republicans of all stripes are waiting to see if a candidate will emerge who might be able to pull it off. Not that much on the line, just a U.S. Senate seat and the possibility of keeping Virginia purple.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.