RICHMOND — Virginia Republicans watched and waited to see if the state party’s treasurer would resign after he publicly questioned Muslims’ contributions to society.
Some urged his ouster; others kept quiet. Finally, he agreed to step down.
The episode added to the turmoil within the state party that is making a growing number of Republicans uneasy about the GOP’s ability to elect statewide candidates or deliver Virginia for a Republican presidential candidate in 2016.
In June, a group of tea party activists, Ron Paul enthusiasts and staunch conservatives calling themselves the “conservative coalition” shocked the nation when they helped a little-known economics professor defeat former House majority leader Eric Cantor.
They also have skillfully worked behind the scenes to win control of the powerful internal party structure from so-called establishment Republicans — a crucial victory with deep consequences for party nominations and how the GOP spends its money.
The fighting could come to a head Saturday when Republicans from both camps — insurgents and establishment — gather in Richmond for a meeting of the party’s governing body, the State Central Committee. The meeting comes as Democrats hold all five statewide offices and the GOP is struggling to define itself.
Officially, the committee will decide some internal issues. But unofficially, some are predicting a day-long slugfest between warring factions that haven’t faced each other since Cantor’s loss.
While a meeting full of arcane parliamentary rules might seem irrelevant to the long-term success of the party, many Republicans say the decisions of a few dozen powerful insiders will have a direct impact on the GOP’s likelihood of nominating candidates with enough mainstream appeal to win statewide elections in a changing Virginia.
Ron Butler, president of a direct-mail firm with ties to Cantor, was pessimistic that momentum would swing back to the establishment.
“They’re acting more like the Muslim Brotherhood than the Republican Party in this country,” he said of the conservative wing of the GOP. “They scream about Eric Holder and President Obama upholding the Constitution. They’re attempting to throw their own constitution out.”
The conservative wing tried to blacklist Butler’s firm, an unprecedented move in Virginia politics that some say runs counter to the party’s free-market ideals.
But Chris Stearns, a Republican activist and chairman of the party’s 3rd Congressional District, applauded the fact that establishment stalwarts, whom he called the “consulting class,” have lost influence to a wave of activism in Virginia.
“This is the first time in modern political history in Virginia that grass-roots activists have had working majorities in the state party,” said Stearns, who was Virginia state director for Paul’s 2012 campaign for president. “Finally, these guys are becoming irrelevant.”
With big policy issues facing the state, including Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s effort to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and a worsening state budget shortfall, some Republicans see their internal troubles as an unhelpful distraction.
The flap about the former party treasurer began July 29, when Bob FitzSimmonds posted an inflammatory comment about Muslims on Facebook. It wasn’t FitzSimmonds’s first brush with controversy; the Nokesville resident, who works for the Prince William County Circuit Court clerk, had previously used an offensive word to describe state Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax), who is now a congressional candidate. FitzSimmonds also wrote, in a 2012 Facebook post, that President Obama would blame his predecessor, George W. Bush, when he “dies and goes to Hell.”
This time, FitzSimmonds was reacting to Obama’s praise of Muslims for helping to build “the very fabric of our nation and strengthening the core of our democracy.”
“Exactly what part of our nation’s fabric was woven by Muslims?” FitzSimmonds wrote. “What about Sikhs, Animists, and Jainists? Should we be thanking them too?”
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) quickly called for FitzSimmonds’s resignation from his party post; Howell was followed a few days later by state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins and Vice Chairman Michael E. Thomas.
But others kept quiet while FitzSimmonds’s online comment created a PR nightmare for the party’s brand. It wasn’t until several days later that he finally resigned in an unapologetic letter to members of the State Central Committee. And it included a catch: He asked to stay on until a replacement is found, a process that could take months and might come up Saturday.
Democrats seized on the FitzSimmonds controversy to cast Republicans as incendiary and noninclusive. The state party specifically called on Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie to denounce the comments, which the Democrats called “bigoted.”
“This hateful language has no place in any organization and is extremely offensive to Virginians practicing the religions FitzSimmonds discredited in his post,” Executive Director Robert Dempsey said at the time.
Many Republicans cringed — particularly because some in the party, including Gillespie, have been fighting against that very perception. Another concern is the possibility that the split in the party will hurt fundraising, even as outside groups increase their influence over elections.
“You can’t keep poking your finger in Main Street’s eye and expect Main Street to keep raising your money,” said Rob Catron, a Republican lobbyist in Richmond who was chief of staff to Ed Schrock, a Republican who represented Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District for two terms. “We’ve worked really hard to open the tent and expand the party, and some tea party activists are doing the opposite.”
On the flip side, the party’s newly empowered conservative coalition, which has effectively tapped into voter dissatisfaction with incumbents such as Cantor, has given a place in the party to some activists who previously felt unwelcome.
At the center of the feud is Mullins, the state GOP’s septuagenarian chairman, who sometimes looks like the ultimate peacemaker and at other times has helped cement the conservative coalition’s takeover. At the height of battles over internal elections in the spring, Mullins chose Patrick M. McSweeney, a firebrand conservative, onetime state GOP head and longtime thorn in the establishment’s side, to replace the party’s attorney.
Mullins also declined to endorse Cantor’s right-hand man, Linwood Cobb, for a district chairmanship, and Cobb lost in a spectacular precursor to the congressman’s own defeat a few weeks later. In another district fight, Mullins endorsed a conservative coalition ally and party donor over state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach.)
Mullins declined requests for comment for this article.
At the core of the rift is a ideological clash about how candidates are nominated for elected office. The conservative coalition prefers party-run conventions that attract the most committed, conservative activists to day-long gatherings. Moderate Republicans prefer primaries, which are open to all voters in Virginia.
Last year, conservatives in crucial party leadership positions successfully pushed for a convention — and went on to nominate candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general whom Democrats, on their way to a historic sweep of all three offices, painted as too conservative.
Stearns said conventions put candidates on the hot seat before educated voters.
“They’re forced to answer difficult questions and actually earn the votes of these people, and that scares the living daylights out of them,” he said.
But Del. Scott W. Taylor (R-Virginia Beach), an Iraq war veteran, has introduced legislation to do away with conventions because members of the military cannot participate. He’s frustrated by efforts to perpetuate the exclusive events.
“I think some people are really overstepping their boundaries,” he said, “and it’s really undermining our party.”