For years, Virginia Republicans have relished the spectacle of their Democratic rivals ripping themselves apart in self-defeating orgies of internal squabbling and factional disputes.
So it was in 1972 when liberal McGovernites took over the party, ousted its chairman and led the Democrats to electoral disaster in November. So it was, too, 10 years later when State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond) gained virtual veto power over the party's nominee for the U.S. Senate, frustrating Democratic kingmakers in their search for a candidate and giving Republican Paul S. Trible critical lead time in raising money and lining up supporters in his successful Senate race.
Now, however, from all outward appearances, the tables have turned: The Democrats are enjoying the luxury of GOP bickering. Over the past couple of weeks, Republican Party activists, many with thinly disguised agendas of their own, have traded bitter accusations as they have decried the party's sorry state and debated whether to dump the state chairman, Alfred Cramer.
According to several party sources, the moving force in the dump-Cramer movement was Robert Weed, a political consultant associated with Trible and a member of the party's "moderate-conservatives" faction, which is about as far left as they go in the Virginia GOP.
New Right Reaganites rallied to Cramer's defense largely, the sources say, because they viewed him as an "un-reelectable" chairman for next year when they plan on making their own bid for party supremacy.
At a party summit conference attended by U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and Trible last Friday in Richmond, Cramer managed to survive. But all sides agree the party's problems remain deep, what with its fund raising lagging badly and its recruitment of candidates on the local level one step away from an unmitigated disaster.
"There are some basic holes in our whole structure," acknowledged Republican Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax), the party's leader in the House of Delegates.
With the state party some $50,000 in the hole, the fundamental problem has been lack of money--and that, Callahan said, is primarily because Democrat Charles S. Robb occupies the governor's chair.
"The governor is always the catalyst for raising money. That's where the power is," Callahan said. "It's coming home to roost this year."
While Republicans now express confidence they can pay off their debts, the absence of strong candidates in many of this year's state legislative races graphically illustrates their inability to translate statewide success into grass-roots power.
It wasn't much more than a year ago that some GOP legislators were optimistically talking about capturing control of the General Assembly before the decade was over, thanks largely to a court-ordered redistricting plan that was designed to break the back of entrenched Democratic organizations on the local level.
But consider the situation in Northern Virginia this year now that members of the House and Senate are up for reelection: The Republicans haven't yet been able to find candidates against four Democratic incumbents, promising a potential free ride for State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington), Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) and Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax).
Moreover, those candidates that the GOP has been able to muster at the local level appear to be less than awesome. For example, Sen. Clive du Val, a liberal Democrat who once appeared vulnerable in his redrawn, affluent Fairfax County district, shouldn't have much trouble against Claiborne (Buck) Morton, the only Republican to sign up against him.
A hard-core New Rightist from McLean, Morton first gained notoriety during a primary race two years ago when he suggested "we'd be better off if only Christians were elected" to public office.
Democratic Sen. Richard J. Saslaw, who runs in perhaps the most Republican of all Fairfax districts, is not exactly quaking in his boots over Nancy Schiffman, a little-known Republican worker from Springfield.
"I know absolutely nothing about the woman," Saslaw said.
The net result is that experts in both parties now expect a virtual standoff in this fall's legislative races, with the Democrats maintaining something close to their 66-to-33 edge in the House and 32-to-8 margin in the Senate. This, however, is hardly cause for unrestrained Democratic celebration. On the horizon is 1984, when Warner and President Reagan are likely to seek reelection.
With the possible exception of Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), none of the current Democratic presidential hopefuls is believed to be a credible candidate in conservative Virginia.
Meanwhile, Warner already has more than $200,000 in the bank for his 1984 reelection bid. And efforts by Robb and others to find a strong challenger against Warner have been fruitless to date.
State Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) has been telling friends he's out of it, and lobbyist William G. Thomas, once the favorite of the business community, has yet to make any moves.
So Callahan, among others, takes some satisfaction from the Democrats' difficulties, even if he probably overstates the case. "Their problems make ours seem like child's play," he said.