RICHMOND — The Republican challenging Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell has stirred up a tempest over a mailer that she says gives the powerful party leader an unfair advantage in their primary race.
Susan Stimpson, Howell’s protege-turned-challenger, said residents of his Fredericksburg-area district recently received a four-page glossy mailer that gives the incorrect impression that the party has endorsed him.
John Whitbeck, wading into his first public spat since being elected chairman last weekend, insisted that the party is neutral in the high-stakes primary and that the mailer is a routine service offered to all elected officials.
The flare-up is the latest fight in a party split between “establishment Republicans” such as Howell (Stafford) and tea-party-influenced activists, but even after feeling a backlash from some in her corner, Stimpson doubled down on her claims.
“Bill Howell is using the force of the party to forward his campaign,” Stimpson said. “It appears that John Whitbeck seems to be intimidated by Bill Howell’s power.”
Whitbeck said he disagreed with “characterizations and the wrong information” that he said Stimpson made in a fundraising pitch about the mailer but said the party would revisit “standards for mail” at a meeting in February.
Howell, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
The mailer asks recipients to fill out a survey about their priorities for the 2015 session, which started Jan. 14. It features smiling photographs of Howell and his family, as well as his campaign logo and Web site; it’s addressed to be returned to his district office.
The mailer also states that it was paid for by the state party, which Stimpson argues violates an intraparty rule that prohibits contributions to candidates in contested primaries.
“A clear line was crossed, and as with the General Assembly and Bill Howell, there’s one rule for the powerful and one rule for rest of us,” she said.
However, it’s routine for candidates in both parties to use their party as a pass-through agency for mailers to take advantage of the discounted mail rate for nonprofit groups.
One conservative blog and others privately say Stimpson may have hurt her campaign with an allegation that the party paid for the mailer when no money changed hands.
Every session, the party offers to send survey mailers on behalf of any elected official. In addition to Howell, six other lawmakers sent out mailers this time, according to the party. None of the others are in contested primaries.
“These surveys aren’t about getting anyone elected,” Whitbeck said, “They are about holding elected officials accountable.”