Feuding within Virginia’s state GOP is alarming prominent national Republicans who think the infighting in a crucial swing state threatens the party’s quest to recapture the White House in 2016.
The rift pits centrist Republicans against tea party and Libertarian activists, and it is playing out in divisive primaries and causing wrangling for control of the party’s state organization.
A bitter source of the conflict — one almost certain to ignite renewed debate as 2016 approaches — is whether the state GOP will select a presidential candidate in a primary or at a convention, a process likely to influence whether the winner is a centrist or a right-wing Republican.
Virginia’s GOP has not won a statewide race in six years, a streak that Republicans partly attribute to the infighting. The conflict flared in full public view last year during a rancorous Republican primary in which a largely unknown tea party activist, David Brat, vanquished then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
A united party, strategists say, is required to build a broad network of support, enlist a squadron of campaign workers and raise the necessary funds to compete in a state in which Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) presides.
A statewide primary, with its higher voter turnout and prolonged exposure, is an opportunity for the eventual nominee to begin building a Virginia campaign organization. The conservative coalition that controls the party, however, is considering a convention, thinking that the activists it would draw would energize the GOP.
“If the party is split 10 ways until Sunday, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult for the Republican nominee to come in and organize,” said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist in Virginia who is advising Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on a possible presidential run.
“It’s absolutely vital that the party unify sooner rather than later,” LaCivita said. “The more time Republicans spend fighting themselves — not Democrats — is time lost that we can’t get back.”
Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who was an adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the GOP has “little room for error” in a “crucial” state such as Virginia.
“The last thing any presidential candidate needs is to drop into a battleground state and have the state party folks going at it like the Hatfields and McCoys,” Madden said. “Every ounce of energy used fighting internally distracts the party from the real opponent.”
If Republicans in Virginia cannot unify, strategists say, national party leaders will have to intervene.
“They’re like feudal lords fighting among themselves instead of a common enemy,” said Brendan Quinn, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the New York state GOP. “At some point, you’re going to have to have the national party step in. You’re going to have adult supervision and someone saying, ‘You’ll have to get along.’ ”
In presidential politics, Virginia is among a handful of swing states needed to win a close general election. The list includes states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Republicans owned Virginia in 10 straight presidential elections, from 1968 to 2004, a string broken by Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 as an infusion of newcomers, including a heavy concentration of Latinos and Asians, altered the state’s politics and demographics.
Winning the White House, Republicans say, is next to impossible without Virginia’s 13 electoral votes.
“You can do it without Virginia, but it makes the task substantially more difficult,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. Ayres predicted that intraparty feuding would dissipate with the emergence of a GOP nominee.
“No candidate from a particular faction of the Republican Party is going to win the nomination — no one faction is large enough,” he said. “Consequently, despite animosity and disagreements, each faction needs the other to be successful.”
Mary Matalin, a GOP consultant who advised President George W. Bush and his father, President George H.W. Bush, said Virginia Republicans, along with Republicans across the country, are going through a “necessary and cathartic reform-oriented transition, which might look like strife contemporaneously but ends productively.”
“The contentious issues and factions will be vetted in what promises to be a full-throated rock ’em, sock ’em primary season,” she said in an e-mail. “Whatever divides us pales in comparison to our unity in opposition to liberal, left incompetence.”
Republicans last won a statewide election in Virginia in 2009, when Robert F. McDonnell became governor. Virginia Democrats control all five statewide offices, including the governorship and two Senate seats.
Virginia’s GOP is “at its weakest point in 40 years,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman and veteran of state politics.
Establishment Republicans contend they’re losing statewide because moderate voters are wary of tea party and Libertarian candidates who espouse what they consider extreme views on issues such as climate change. Just three years ago, Virginia Republicans were ridiculed on national television for supporting a measure that would have required women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before obtaining an abortion.
Partly as a result of such publicity, voters have gravitated toward McAuliffe and other Democrats, who have focused more on issues such as jobs and education. “To win statewide you have to be a coalition — you can’t be a private club with an admissions committee,” Davis said.
The turbulence has made business leaders more reticent about contributing to the state GOP. According to its latest federal filing, Virginia’s Republican Party was $217,499 in debt and had only $252 cash on hand by the end of January.
“It has been disastrous for the state Republican Party over the past few years,” said a prominent fundraiser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to ensure candor. “Your normal donors have abandoned the party. If you’re going to go back to the business community, you need to be centrist.”
Republicans are not without power in Virginia.
The GOP controls the General Assembly’s two chambers and eight of the state’s 11 congressional seats. The GOP also saw promise in Republican Ed Gillespie’s near-upset of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in November.
The divide within Virginia’s GOP burst into the open in 2012, when then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a conservative favored by business, fought for control of the party’s governing board with then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, whose social views were a magnet for tea party loyalists.
Cuccinelli’s allies won and changed the process for choosing nominees from a state-sponsored primary open to all registered voters including Democrats, to a convention, which invites only Republicans and typically attracts activists with more hard-line views.
That debate probably will occur again as the state party considers whether to host a state-run Republican presidential primary or choose the candidate at a convention. A primary, strategists say, would favor an establishment candidate such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush. A convention would be advantageous to a candidate such as Paul, who has a strong following among conservative activists.
At the heart of the battle, party officials say, is a disagreement over approach.
“It’s not about ideology. It’s about tactics and control,” said Mike Thomas, who was Republican former governor George Allen’s campaign manager and is a vice chairman of the party’s governing board.
“The key difference,” he said, “is that people I’ve been associated with understand that it takes a broad coalition to win and that Republican elected officials are not our enemies. They’re our friends.”
‘Consumed’ by strife
The internal feuding has ensnared Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who has established his conservative credentials over the years by supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage and opposing gun control.
Susan Stimpson, a tea party activist, is challenging her former political mentor in a primary. Stimpson has accused Howell of abandoning conservatives by joining a bipartisan effort to raise taxes to fund road repairs.
In recent weeks, Virginia conservatives have also fought over a proposed convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution — so much so that state Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), perhaps the legislature’s most conservative member, has been accused of not being conservative enough for opposing the idea.
Unthinkable just a few years ago, Black may even face a challenge from the right this year.
The factions also are warring for control over the party’s governing board, otherwise known as the state central committee. In January, the committee voted to unseat one of its members, who then threatened a lawsuit and accused his opponents of being ”extremists.”
“We don’t get anything done, we don’t talk strategy, we don’t talk about how to raise money,” said Thomas, describing the central committee as being “consumed” by internal disputes and “people defending themselves against baseless charges.”
John Whitbeck, who became chairman of the state GOP in January, said party discord is his “number one concern.”
“We’re not as good as we can be until the infighting ends, until we eradicate the labels, and overcome the disagreements that have become more personal,” he said in an interview. “We have no choice but to unite to win statewide.”
Whether that is possible is an open question. Just days after Whitbeck’s remarks, a newly elected state GOP leader whom he supported triggered another moment of public scrutiny when it was revealed that scathing tweets about fellow Republicans had been sent from her Twitter account.
The tweets from the account belonging to Jo Thoburn, the new chairwoman in the party’s 10th Congressional District, included one that questioned whether a prominent GOP fundraiser is “evil.” Another tweet branded Republicans as “despicable” for supporting a tax increase.
Still, Whitbeck’s message of unity pleases establishment Republicans, even as some question whether he can make it happen.
“Time will tell if he’s really serious about it, or capable of doing it,” Bolling said. The state GOP, Bolling said, “has to make a fundamental choice: Do they want to be an echo chamber for the tea party and other ideologically driven groups, or do they want to actually win?”
Doug Heye, a former Cantor adviser, said unity is the party’s only viable option.
“It’s incumbent on Republicans that they hang together,” he said. “Or we will hang ourselves separately.”