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McDonnell Risks Conservative Support by Joining Split in State Republican Party

Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick is fighting to remain as party chairman.
Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick is fighting to remain as party chairman. (By Bob Brown -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via Ap)
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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

With the three Democratic candidates for governor battling for their party's nomination, GOP candidate Robert F. McDonnell was in a posture that many statewide candidates can only dream about.

McDonnell is running unopposed for his party's nomination and has all spring to prepare for the general election as the Democrats attack one another. He also appeared to have the luxury of a unified conservative base that is relatively enthusiastic about his candidacy, leaving him the freedom to reach out to moderate swing voters who might decide the November election.

Despite all this, the McDonnell campaign apparently couldn't resist wading into an ugly, internal party battle over Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick's fitness to serve as chairman of the Virginia Republican Party.

McDonnell joined in efforts to oust the party leader. Frederick (Prince William) has vowed to fight for his job. The looming battle could set up the kind of split that McDonnell and GOP leaders worked so hard to avoid. It's a curious strategy that poses huge risks for McDonnell.

Frederick's fate has been uncertain for months. After a series of missteps, internal disagreements and the party's poor showing in Virginia in last year's elections, the Republican State Central Committee served Frederick with papers last week notifying him that more than 80 percent of the committee wants an emergency meeting next month to remove him as chairman.

This week, the entire GOP leadership in the state Senate also endorsed removing Frederick. "An overwhelming majority of our caucus has expressed concern over the state of affairs at the Republican Party of Virginia in recent months and has lost confidence in Delegate Frederick's leadership," the letter states.

Republican leaders say Frederick has become a major distraction and embarrassment to the state party. Since he took over, the party has struggled to raise money. Last year, Frederick failed to work effectively with the Virginia campaign staff of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). And Frederick has made several controversial comments, including comparing then-candidate Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden.

Frederick's critics need a three-fourths vote to remove him.

McDonnell injected himself into the debate to help undermine Frederick. In a statement last week, McDonnell said it would be helpful for the Republican Party of Virginia to have more effective leadership. On a conference call with reporters Monday, McDonnell said the "grass roots" of the party want new leadership. GOP insiders say McDonnell's campaign staff played a key role in lining up signatures to call the special election.

Frederick said in an interview that he's "not surprised" McDonnell is trying to oust him because "Bob didn't support me for chairman in the first place."

"I am disappointed some in our party want to fight these old fights," Frederick said.

By challenging Frederick, McDonnell has picked a fight with some of his party's most loyal supporters. Frederick, a social and economic conservative, was elected chairman at last year's GOP state convention after he waged a campaign to unseat John H. Hager, a moderate, from the position. Frederick cobbled together a coalition of several thousand antiabortion and anti-tax activists as well as home-schoolers, many of the same delegates who supported Del. Robert G. Marshall (Prince William) over former governor James S. Gilmore III in the Senate race.

Until last week, McDonnell appeared to be embracing a strategy of marginalizing Frederick and the state party during this year's governor's race. Last month, McDonnell announced that lobbyist and former Bush administration official Ed Gillespie, who chaired the state GOP committee in 2007, would be his campaign chairman.

The hire was widely believed to be an indication that McDonnell was building a campaign apparatus that would largely bypass the state party. But McDonnell is now signaling he wants more control over the party apparatus. It's understandable for a Republican nominee to want to have a close working relationship with the state party chairman, but McDonnell must now also face the potential consequences associated with his decision to try to remove Frederick.

And in preparing for the state central committee meeting next week, Frederick has the upper hand when it comes to keeping his job.

He needs to convince just 20 of the 77 committee members that he should stay. If Frederick survives, it will be a major setback for McDonnell. It would also give Democrats fodder to argue that the state Republican Party is dominated by conservatives, despite McDonnell's efforts to position himself as a centrist on many issues.

McDonnell could face another set of problems if Frederick is ousted from his position.

In late May, the GOP will convene to formally declare McDonnell the nominee. This year's convention will probably be dominated by many of the social conservatives who helped install Frederick last year.

They might not go along with a love fest for McDonnell. He might have to quell unrest from delegates angered by Frederick's removal. Some Republicans say they think Frederick could also launch a floor fight at the convention to get his job back, which would be a major distraction for McDonnell.

Marshall predicts the conservative base will quickly turn on McDonnell if it appears Frederick is "railroaded." Marshall said an independent committee should be set up to evaluate the accusations against Frederick.

"If an independent group doesn't do this, this is going to seriously damage Bob McDonnell," Marshall said. "The folks who came to the convention who voted for me and voted for Frederick, they just won't work for McDonnell."

McDonnell may have created a situation where Frederick builds his own shadow Virginia Republican Party. Four years ago, moderate Republican senator H. Russell Potts Jr. ran as an independent candidate for governor. Could Frederick envision his own independent bid this year?

He is noncommittal: "Right now, I'm focused on making sure we elect Bob McDonnell as governor."


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