Va. Republicans gather to chart course for coming elections

December 7, 2013

Susan Allen, home alone with her little children years ago, opened the front door to a suspicious-looking man who claimed to be a meter reader. She did so with a revolver behind her back

“I had no intention of shooting, but the fact that I could if I need to . . . it’s survival,” the former Virginia first lady said.

Allen, the wife of former governor and senator George Allen (R), related that story Saturday to hundreds of Republicans who had gathered at the posh Homestead resort to rebuild in the wake of November’s stinging losses.

There was by no means consensus on which way the GOP should go.

While Susan Allen called for moderation on social issues, others — including outspoken minister E.W. Jackson, who lost the race for lieutenant governor last month — urged fellow conservatives to defend the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and stand strong opposing abortion. Others affirmed the party’s decision to select its candidate for the U.S. Senate next year at a convention rather than in a primary — a decision likely to result in a more-conservative nominee who might struggle to defeat incumbent Mark R. Warner (D) in increasingly moderate Virginia.

Last month’s elections produced the first Democratic sweep of Virginia's three statewide ­offices — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — in 24 years. But because two of the GOP defeats were closer than expected and the third is the subject of an ongoing recount, they remain open to widely different interpretations. That had some at the Homestead clamoring to change direction and others vowing to stand pat.

Allen, whom some Republicans would like to see run for office in her own right, made the most-outspoken call for change — even as she opened with an anecdote pleasing to a conservative, gun-rights crowd. She made some of the toughest public comments of any Republican to date about a gifts scandal surrounding Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), saying, “It saddens me, it sickens me to think that our state, our party, is a party lacking in integrity and ethics.”

And she suggested that the GOP should become more welcoming to those who support same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

“There are good people on all sides of all of our social issues," she said. “Not just on female reproductive rights but on gay marriage. There are good people. And I think if we are a party made up of a majority of Christians, as Christians aren’t we taught to be open-minded and love one another, even if we disagree?”

Allen’s call to become more pragmatic on social issues was by no means the consensus at the Advance, an annual retreat at which the Virginia GOP show­cases its rising stars and tries to chart its course in coming elections.

The gathering drew about 450 people, a smaller number than a year ago. McDonnell, the subject of state and federal investigations into more than $160,000 in gifts and money characterized as loans from a wealthy businessman, did not attend. The threat of an ice storm also kept away Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who was supposed to headline a gala Saturday night. State Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) was scheduled to take his place.

Obenshain lost the attorney general’s race to state Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) by just 165 votes out of more than 2 million cast. The results are the subject of a recount.

Even as the GOP tried to move forward, it remained mired in the last election. Obenshain’s campaign held two sessions at the Advance to train volunteers to observe the recount.

Jackson, who lost to state Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk), hosted a candidate-style hospitality suite, stoking speculation that he will seek the party’s nomination to challenge Warner.

“I’m running for Jesus right now and that’s enough,” he said. “If that ever ­changes, you’ll be the first to know.”

Two Republicans running for the right to challenge Warner addressed a small gathering at the Advance: Howie Lind, 56, a former Navy officer and tea party activist; and Shak Hill, 48, an Air Force veteran and insurance broker. They were introduced by Jackson.

Jackson announced the formation of Unite Virignia PAC and said he plans to focus on issues with broad appeal: parental choice in education, limited regulations on small business, restoring voting and gun rights to non­violent felons. But he also said that the party should not soft-pedal its traditional positions on social issues.

“Folks, we have got to stand firm for our constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman,” he said. “We’ve still got to stand firm on life. You cannot have prosperity and a sound political system if you insist the life of unborn children don’t matter and we can discard them at will.”

Steering clear of social issues, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the way forward is to hammer Democrats on the federal health-care law. Cantor also said Republicans should stress President Obama’s “war on coal” and make a stronger case for conservative educational reforms, such as school-voucher programs.

Among those who were thrilled to think Jackson might be in the mix for the U.S. Senate was Nancy Stone of Harrisonburg. She was at Jackson’s hospitality suite, which he catered on a tight budget by encouraging attendees to bring pies for a pie-tasting contest. Stone bagged top prize with a pecan pie she had made.

“He was the real deal,” she said. “I think we need more candidates like him.”

Other Republicans said they were wary that Jackson, a stirring orator, might be able to win the nomination at a convention but lose statewide again because of his outspoken social stances. At the Advance, the state GOP central committee affirmed a decision made in May to nominate its Senate candidate at a convention. It will take place in Roanoke in June.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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