So far, Virginia’s Hill delegation steering clear of White House race

January 15, 2012

With primary season underway, Republican voters and officials nationwide are choosing sides in the presidential race. But in Virginia, a key GOP bloc appears stuck in neutral.

As of Friday, not one of Virginia’s eight Republican members of Congress had lined up behind a presidential candidate, even as many colleagues in other states had taken the plunge.

Nationwide, close to one-third of Republican House members — 76 out of 242, according to a tally maintained by Roll Call — have endorsed a White House hopeful.

“We haven’t gotten together and said, ‘Let’s not endorse,’ ” said Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R). “We’ve just decided individually . . . to sit it out” for now.

Every member takes a different approach to the race, with different political priorities and constituencies to consider. For Griffith, the fact that he’s a freshman lawmaker made him feel that the wise course was to stay out.

“I just feel it’s the right thing for me to do this election cycle,” Griffith said. “I have no problem with any particular candidate, I just feel it’s the right thing for my district.”

Griffith’s southwest Virginia seat is strongly conservative, with a significant concentration of tea party groups. Some voters on the right have been reluctant to embrace former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has accrued a strong majority of the GOP econgressional endorsements across the country.

“I actually endorsed Romney last time around, so it’s not a problem with Romney,” Griffith said. “And he gave a contribution to my campaign early on.”

While Griffith is new to Congress, the longest-serving member of the Virginia delegation, 16-term Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R), has stayed unaffiliated for a different reason.

“When the process started, he reached out to Mitch Daniels,” said Wolf spokesman Daniel Scandling, referring to the Indiana governor and former Office of Management and Budget director. “That’s who he had hoped would run.”

In the last presidential cycle, Wolf did not publicly declare his support for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) campaign until June 2008, well after most of his colleagues had done so.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R), whose office declined to comment, may have a different reason for staying above the fray: his title.

High-ranking congressional leaders often avoid aligning with a candidate in contested party primaries. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) don’t plan to endorse anytime soon.

The fact that Virginia’s March 6 presidential primary is seven weeks away also could help explain the lack of endorsements emanating from the state. Some Republicans may be holding their support, planning to roll it out for maximum political impact when national attention is focused on Virginia.

The odds that Virginia will play a decisive role in picking a candidate lessened Friday, when a federal judge denied a request from four GOP candidates to add them to the primary ballot. As of now, only Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) will appear on the ballot.

In Richmond, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) — a much-discussed possibility for the vice presidential nod — and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) have been neutral. But Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) has jumped into the fray, chairing Romney’s campaign in the state for the second consecutive cycle.

One of Maryland’s Republican members of Congress, freshman Rep. Andy Harris, endorsed former House speaker Newt Gingrich. The other, Roscoe G. Bartlett, has not endorsed.

Like colleagues in other states, some Virginia Republicans could be unsure of Romney but also wary of endorsing any of the other candidates, all of whom now are seen as long shots.

“It’s a sensible strategy on their part,” said Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University. “Why risk angering the conservative base by endorsing Romney now? Wait till he looks really inevitable and then jump on the bandwagon to be seen as helping unite the party.”

In February 2008, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) complained to The Washington Post, “One of the problems with each of the Republican presidential candidates this year is each of them doesn’t connect with all segments of the party.”

Goodlatte was lamenting the fact that George Allen’s presidential hopes were derailed when he lost his 2006 Senate reelection bid. Allen, who is running for Senate again, has not endorsed in the 2012 contest.

Goodlatte’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The offices of GOP Reps. J. Randy Forbes, Robert Hurt, Scott Rigell and Rob Wittman also did not provide comment.

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