RICHMOND — Republican Eric Cantor on Saturday addressed the inaugural gathering of a group formed after grass-roots activists helped Dave Brat topple the former majority leader in last summer’s GOP primary.
The day-long meeting of the Virginia Conservative Network featured a who’s who of establishment Republicans in the mold of Cantor, many of whom are frustrated with the party’s loss of all five statewide offices in recent years.
According to organizers, Cantor gave an invitation-only crowd of more than 100 people tips on how to frame their message to voters as Republicans prepare to defend their slim majority in the state Senate this year. Activists from the establishment wing of the party are also focused on delivering the swing state of Virginia for the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.
“It’s a gathering to try to figure out how do we reinvigorate local committees, however that may be done,” said Michael Thomas, an organizer and the vice chairman of the state GOP. “We had really a good start to that. There have been a lot of people tending to drop by the wayside because of how we fared in recent elections.”
In addition to Cantor, former governor George Allen and his wife, Susan, spoke during a session called “Reclaiming the Elephant.” Cantor was joined by Linwood Cobb, his right-hand man in the Seventh District Republican Committee whose ouster foreshadowed Cantor’s own defeat.
Rep. Brat and his supporters were not invited, Cobb said, because the meeting was not focused on the district but on a statewide effort to expand the party by reaching out to minorities and other groups who might not normally vote Republican.
“The statewide aspect of it is a big factor of what we wanted to start working toward,” Cobb said in a phone interview. “We are not going to win statewide [by] just talking to conservative Republicans or just tea party Republicans. We’ve got to go beyond that to win.”
Not only was Brat not invited, his spokesman said, he didn’t even know it was happening.
“It’s a little strange that they have a meeting in the district without alerting the district’s congressman,” Brian Gottstein said.
Ron Headlund, a Brat volunteer, said he was blocked from the suburban Richmond DoubleTree hotel where the meeting was held.
“I’m assuming that the Eric Cantor machine is working to drive out the grass roots from the Republican Party,” he said.
Thomas rejected that characterization of the meeting and said the party is big enough for establishment and conservative coalition supporters.
“We can disagree on tactics or personality or what have you,” he said, “but unity means everyone sees what the goal is and is committed to walking toward that goal even while maintaining differences along the way. People who might want to engage in griping about grievances or engaging vendettas were not invited today.”
According to the program, newly elected Rep. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Va.), who won with a message of bridging the divide between party factions, was the opening speaker. There were seminars titled “Thriving in Today’s Political Environment,” “All Politics Are Local” and “Growing Virginia’s GOP.”
Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), the majority leader of the House of Delegates, and state Sen. John A. Cosgrove Jr. (R-Chesapeake) spoke about the General Assembly’s legislative priorities for the session that started last week.
Last month, the Virginia Republican Party gathered for its annual retreat, which has long been a haven for the party’s most committed activists. At the time, conservatives of all stripes, inspired by Comstock’s victory and the narrowness of Ed Gillespie’s loss to U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D), pledged party unity. It didn’t take long for that to begin to unravel.
The party administration has tried to stay neutral in the battle between the so-called Main Street conservatives and the tea party-influenced wing, which calls itself the conservative fellowship.
John Whitbeck, who is running to succeed Pat Mullins as state party chairman, said any time Republicans want to meet, he’s all for it. The fellowship doesn’t invite the establishment group to its meetings, either, he said.
“My focus is to be everybody’s party,” Mullins said.
The State Central Committee will meet Saturday in Falls Church to elect a new chairman.