On Friday evening, the bandwagon of former first lady, senator and secretary of State Hillary Clinton barreled across the Potomac River like Gen. Grant leading Lincoln’s Army. “Virginia is ours!” declared the faithful gathered to hear her speak at the Virginia Democratic Party fundraising dinner. It reportedly raised $1 million for the party.
Democrats are confident — with good reason. For the first time since 1969, Virginia Republicans lack any member in statewide elected office. Earlier in the week, the Supreme Court again upheld Obamacare and decided same-sex-marriage bans were unconstitutional. Justices appointed by Republican presidents penned both opinions. With these political winds at her back, Ms. Clinton had reason to smile Friday night.
Come Saturday afternoon, the Republican Party of Virginia got to throw a counter-punch. In 2013, after the contest started, conservative powerbrokers forced a change in the rules for choosing the Republican statewide ticket. Candidates had been promised a state-run primary with hundreds of thousands of voters expected to turn out to pick the winner. But the GOP’s governing committee ditched the primary for a party-run convention process traditionally dominated by a cadre of conservative activists.
This led to constant intraparty recriminations. The convention result: the nomination of the most conservative GOP ticket ever. The general election result: the first Democratic statewide sweep since the 1980s.
Undeterred by this debacle, these same powerbrokers arrived in Staunton on Saturday afternoon pushing hard to junk the 2016 presidential primary in favor of another insular convention process to choose delegates to next year’s Republican National Convention. They said presidential primaries produced RINOS – Republicans in Name Only – unable to rally the party’s conservative base.
But as governing body members took their seats for the Primary v. Convention showdown vote, many realized this mantra from self-described “real” conservatives didn’t add up. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — two conservative icons of modern Republicanism — owed their presidential nominations to the California and New Hampshire primaries, respectively. George W. Bush secured his 2000 nomination by winning Virginia’s presidential primary.
Those claiming primaries unfairly disadvantaged “real” conservatives were wrong. As the debate heated-up, their real motivation became exposed. They pointed out that a convention, unlike a primary, provided an opportunity for the nearly broke RPV to tap the growing field of GOP presidential hopefuls, along with delegate participants, for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from various fees.
Money is the mother’s milk of politics, as the adage goes. Convention backers had a legitimate debating point. But it totally undercut their previous claim to be promoting a convention on principle.
This allowed pro-primary forces to seize the high political ground. They presented themselves as tribunes of the people, advocating a process ensuring much higher participation by the very voters the party needs to win the White House. Every GOP president in the modern era — George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower — was nominated by dominating the primary process. Today’s pampered conservative activists consider them all RINOS. But mainstream Republican voters know better.
In the end, 39 members of the Virginia GOP governing committee chose the cash. But 42 rejected the money for the priceless principle of allowing the people to vote, believing this provided the best chance of picking a Republican nominee able to carry Virginia.
By the slimmest of margins, Virginia Republicans sent Clinton a message: Not so fast. The primary might now emerge as a key to finding her general election opponent.
Who won round # 1? We give it to the Virginia GOP. Admittedly,the party is still broke but it is far richer in spirit.