Starting today, Virginia Republicans will gather for a three-day retreat -- known as the Advance -- at which they will engage in an autopsy of the 2013 election and debate the right way forward for the party. It's a moment that given the speakers at the event (Texas Gov. Rick Perry and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor among them), the swing state nature of the Commonwealth and the ongoing fight for control of the national GOP is worth keeping an eye on.
Even before the Advance begins, a fight erupted within the Virginia GOP ranks. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who was forced out of the governor's race in 2013 by state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli penned a scathing op-ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch in which he upbraided the party for its 2013 campaign. Wrote Bolling:
We must recognize that we have a problem, and that the 2013 campaigns did a great deal to damage our party and its appeal to a changing Virginia electorate.
We cannot win statewide political campaigns just by appealing to conservative voters in the rural parts of our state. We must also be able to connect with more moderate and independent voters in Northern Virginia and rapidly changing suburbs in Richmond and Hampton Roads.
These voters will not be attracted to the Republican Party or candidates who are seen as being too ideologically driven, too focused on the most controversial or divisive issues of the day, or too combative and confrontational in their leadership style and demeanor.
The not-so-subtle message in the Bolling piece? If Republicans keep nominating grassroots conservative candidates like Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson, who lost the race for lieutenant governor by a wide margin, they can kiss their chances of becoming a majority party in the state goodbye. The party would do better to choose the Bill Bollings of the world, Bolling essentially argues.
Not so fast, says Chris LaCivita, who served as the chief strategist for Cuccinelli's gubernatorial campaign. In response to Bolling's op-ed, LaCivita tweeted:
Soon to be ex lt gov and then nobody bill bolling defines hubris in his oped in the TIMES DISPATCH this morning.
— Chris LaCivita (@LaCivitaC) December 4, 2013
In an interview, LaCivita expanded on that sentiment -- noting that Bolling's refusal to endorse Cuccinelli for governor makes him a non-credible voice in the conversation about where the GOP should head. "Bolling is the wrong messenger for any discussion about GOP because he actively worked against the GOP nominee and is contemplating a possible job in the McAuliffe Administration," said LaCivita.
Whether or not Bolling can credibly make the case for the need for the GOP to move away from the sort of candidates it nominated in 2013, he is far from the only voice who will make that point. Former Rep. Tom Davis, who passed on a Senate bid in 2008 and watched while conservative favorite Jim Gilmore lost badly to now Sen. Mark Warner (D), has been a strong voice urging his party to reconsider its current direction in the state. The key person to watch may well be Cantor, who, while he is a member of House Republican leadership, has courted the tea party members of his conference assiduously since the GOP took over the House in November 2010.
The debate in Virginia is not insignificant. The state's movement from a solidly Republican area to a swing -- and potentially even Democratic-leaning state -- has mirrored the broader problems for the GOP (losing suburbia, struggling to win over women voters, problems courting minorities) nationally. As Bolling notes in his op-ed, Republicans have lost seven of the last eight races for statewide office and, after not winning Virginia at the presidential level in four decades, Democrats have now won it twice in a row.
How Virginia Republicans go may well be how national Republicans go. It's why this weekend is so important.