Virginia Republicans are launching a major new strategy to start winning statewide elections again with a concerted effort to engage minority voters and unify the fractured establishment and conservative wings of the party.
Energized by Ed Gillespie’s near-win against U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) last month, activists and party leaders gathered at their annual retreat this weekend in Northern Virginia to plot ways to raise money and build broad new field operations.
As one of the speakers at the gala dinner, Gillespie urged the party to build on gains his campaign made with African American, Hispanic and Asian American voters over the next four years.
“A bigger Republican majority in our state Senate, delivering Virginia for our Republican presidential nominee, regaining the governorship of the commonwealth and flipping a U.S. Senate seat will make a big difference for the country and commonwealth we love,” Gillespie said.
The stakes are high for a party that has been at war with itself over which policies to embrace and which voters to court. While many activists have demanded strict adherence to a conservative platform on abortion, immigration and government spending, establishment leaders have blamed such positions — and the candidates who espouse them — for Democrats’ sweep of all three statewide races last year.
After a year of internal bickering, Gillespie’s solid showing last month as well as Barbara J. Comstock’s decisive victory in a Northern Virginia congressional contest provide hope to party leaders as they prepare for legislative elections next year and the 2016 presidential contest.
At a Marriott Hotel near Dulles International Airport on Saturday, activists and leaders said they hope to turn that positive energy into a long-range plan that starts with a renewed emphasis on fundraising. The party’s ability to raise money was weakened when fundraising juggernaut Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, lost his seat in a primary to conservative insurgent Dave Brat.
John Whitbeck, who has gathered wide support in his bid to become party chairman, said Saturday that he has a three-year plan to raise $1.5 million to hire field directors in each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts. Eventually, he’d like to see the party rake in $4 million a year, he said.
Whitbeck, a lawyer from Loudoun County, said the party will not back away from its conservative principles, with plans to hire organizers in each congressional district focused on reaching out to various grass-roots groups, whether church-based or affiliated with the tea party.
“We have all the infighting that I want to end,” he said. “And it’s up to the [state party] not only to give donors a reason to invest in the party, but also to give grass-roots folks a reason to invest their time and their passion, and we haven’t done a good job of it.”
Whitbeck plans to court donors outside Virginia personally — starting in Maryland and Washington — with a pitch that their dollars could make a difference in what is expected to be a crucial swing state in 2016.
Whitbeck is well received by establishment stalwarts who have recently seen their power within the party wane. But he also supports the sometimes controversial party-run nominating conventions favored by a conservative fellowship in power at the state GOP.
Because they attract a smaller, more conservative group of participants, conventions tend to nominate more right-leaning candidates than primaries, which in Virginia are open to all voters.
One conservative supporting Whitbeck is Curtis Colgate, chairman of southeastern Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District Committee, who said he was inspired by Gillespie’s and Comstock’s strategies. Colgate said he is planning the first in a series of breakfasts in January at a Virginia Beach hotel for African American, Filipino and Hispanic voters.
“To talk about our issues and how it affects their community, but also to hear from them. What can we do better for you?” he said.
Still unclear Saturday was whether Gillespie plans to run again. The former Republican National Committee chairman has been silent on the subject, but activists and party leaders said Saturday that they hope he considers another Senate run.
Aside from Gillespie, Brat, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), outgoing state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins and former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III also spoke.
For many participants, the highlight of this weekend’s two-day retreat, dubbed the “Republican Advance,” were Friday night’s hospitality suites hosted by elected officials and groups who fork over $5,000 hoping to attract attention to their cause with free booze and a party vibe.
State Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), who came within a hair’s breadth of winning the attorney general’s race last year, and Pete Snyder, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, teamed up to host a “Grateful for our Grassroots” suite.
Both cautioned against drawing conclusions from the event about their future plans to run for office. They said the party has to focus on expanding its slim majority in the Senate. U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman was also coy about his intentions in hosting his first-ever suite.
The event was not without signs of discord that hint at the bruising primary battles to come.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and creator of a famous anti-tax pledge, stopped by the suite of Susan Stimpson, who is challenging House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), to endorse her.
“I like to think of it as helping the speaker move into a high-paying, private-sector job. This is a question of helping him in his career development,” Norquist said.
Conservative causes from the National Rifle Association to the Virginia Citizens Defense League set up tables too. Some participants wore bright-orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers.
Yet striking a welcoming tone, Obenshain urged the party to embrace new constituencies, offering a plug for Filipino American Friendship Day, the Pakistani American Business Association and the Korean U.S. Festival, where he sampled various “exotic food items.”
“We have economic diversity, geographic diversity, but particularly in Northern Virginia, we have incredible ethnic diversity,” he said. The ends justify the means, he said, adding: “There is no way on God’s green earth Hillary Clinton is going to win the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), the majority leader of the House of Delegates, echoed that message and said his chamber’s commanding Republican majority has been setting an outreach example for years.
“You just have to show up at everything. There’s not a magic to it. You have to figure out what’s going on in the community, and they have to feel like you’re not just showing up at election time,” he said in an interview.
That’s the right approach, according to Gillespie, who traded on his newly minted status as a standard-bearer for a party badly in need of leadership.
“The experts were wrong when they said Mark Warner was invulnerable. And they are wrong if they think Virginia has turned blue,” he said.
“Our commonwealth’s a swing state, and we need to make sure it starts swinging in our direction again. You can bet the governor is going to pull out all the stops for his party to retake the state Senate next year.”