RICHMOND — Virginia’s fractured GOP will be drawn into yet another skirmish between the conservative grass roots and party establishment next year, when its top Republican will face a primary challenge from the right.
Just five months after the stunning defeat of former House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell finds himself fending off a similar threat.
Virginia has gained national attention as a swing state where, after a string of losses, Republicans are working furiously to position themselves to compete in the 2016 presidential election. One of their challenges is to unite a state GOP deeply divided between moderates and a coalition of activists and tea party faithful who want the party to stand stronger on such rallying issues as reducing government spending and opposing abortion and immigration reform.
Democrats swept all three statewide contests on the ballot last year against a slate of conservative candidates. But the right wing continues to control many of the state GOP’s leadership posts and retains the power to guide candidate nominations. The lesson many Republicans are taking from Cantor’s defeat, and from Howell’s impending primary fight, is that anything goes in the topsy-turvy world of Virginia politics — and no one should assume he or she is safe.
“In today’s political world, especially in the Republican Party, you can’t take anything for granted,” said former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling (R). “If you have someone running against you, you have to take that seriously. Unfortunately, it’s just the nature of where the party is right now. I suspect a lot of incumbent Republicans will face challenges in 2015.”
Last year, Howell, 71, easily survived a primary election in his Fredericksburg-area House of Delegates district. He has managed to keep the dueling factions of his party reasonably happy — allowing the House to tack rightward over his nearly 12 years as speaker while showing a willingness to compromise with Democrats on such bipartisan issues as transportation funding.
Howell is also a genial presence on the dais of the House chamber, maintaining stiff discipline but regularly delivering a dry wit and ready smile.
Yet criticism has mounted from the right, and some Republicans expect the drumbeat to grow louder as next year’s legislative elections approach, with activists emboldened by Cantor’s defeat as well as last week’s GOP sweep of congressional elections across the nation.
Susan Stimpson, a former chairwoman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors and onetime Howell protege, said the time has come to examine Howell’s leadership. Stimpson said she is planning to take him on next year out of frustration with taxes and the state’s $2.4 billion multiyear budget shortfall.
“Unfortunately, [Howell] has lost his grounding, and it has become especially evident over the past few years when he squandered his super majority in the House,” she said in an e-mail. “After 28 years in office, he has made increased taxes and spending his legacy and that needs to change.”
Not everyone thinks Howell is any more at risk this election cycle than in the past — and Stimpson has her own set of detractors, some of them Howell loyalists who resent her for turning against her patron.
“Howell will beat Stimpson like a rented mule,” said Ray Allen, a Republican consultant and Cantor loyalist who has tangled with the conservative coalition.
The speaker has tried to avoid some of the mistakes of Cantor, whom critics saw as out of step with his suburban Richmond district and too focused on his national responsibilities. Cord Sterling, a Stafford supervisor who served with Stimpson, said Howell has delivered on projects for the county and makes a point to show up when local officials request face time.
“He’s the one we can count on,” he said. “Others we invite, and they don’t show up. The speaker is always there.”
Howell and Stimpson,43, were once close and, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, his political committee gave nearly $15,000 in in-kind donations to her 2009 campaign for supervisor.
Their political partnership dissolved over Medicaid expansion, and by the time she took the stage as one of seven candidates seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor at last year’s chaotic party convention, they were on opposite sides of a splintered state GOP.
“Tax increases — that’s what Democrats do, not Republicans. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem!” she told the crowd.
Stimpson is part a chorus of conservatives who believe that Howell orchestrated a compromise that ensured passage of a sweeping transportation bill last year — and secretly cleared the path for the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Howell led Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion and denied any secret effort to let it pass. But Stimpson and others objected to the creation of a 10-member commission that they feared would bolster the case for expansion. They also mistrusted budget language that they believed would have given Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) the legal power to expand Medicaid unilaterally.
Robert F. McDonnell (R), McAuliffe’s predecessor, said that, in fact, the commission was “a clear fire wall against expansion,” and Howell was credited with outfoxing Democrats. As for the questionable language, the General Assembly reconvened this summer and, under pressure from conservatives, removed it from the budget.
In a phone interview this week, Howell declined to confirm whether he will run in the June primary — “I haven’t said no yet” — but he readily engaged on some of Stimpson’s criticisms. He said his role in blocking Medicaid expansion is part of his “real legacy,” and he called the transportation bill vital for residents’ safety as well as economic development.
“That’s important, particularly in the part of the commonwealth where I live and where Susan lives,” he said. “People are desperate for transportation improvements. Conservatives don’t like to raise taxes, but they also don’t like to borrow money or not fund things.”
Stimpson also blamed Howell for handing then-Gov. Mark R. Warner a 2004 legislative victory that rocketed the Democrat to statewide popularity and opened a fissure in the state GOP. At the time, Howell publicly opposed Warner’s $1.6 billion tax increase, targeted primarily for education funding. But the speaker has been accused of quietly telling a few Republicans to skip a committee vote to allow the bill to reach a full House vote. Asked about that this week, Howell said he couldn’t recall.
Stimpson will probably have a fundraising disadvantage, but she has the support of several key conservatives from her part of Virginia. Several political operatives who helped Republican Dave Brat unseat Cantor and also worked on Stimpson’s lieutenant governor campaign will again join her team. They include consultant Tim Edson, longtime party activist Russ Moulton and Eric Herr, chairman of the party’s 1st District Congressional Committee.
“He was speaker of the House, and McDonnell was governor, and we had a tax increase,” Herr said. “How it happened, I don’t know, but I’m not happy that it happened.”
A restored, two-room log cabin overlooking the Rappahannock River in Stafford County doubles as Howell’s district and law office. Howell’s district, which includes parts of Stafford and Fredericksburg, is not among the state’s most conservative areas; Republican Ken Cuccinelli II carried it by five points in last year’s gubernatorial race, but President Obama lost it by only three points in 2008 — and won it by a mere two votes in 2012, according to the VPAP.
Still, the district’s base of Republican activists could tilt turnout in a GOP primary significantly to the right.
In terms of his policies, Bolling called Howell plenty conservative.
“If Bill Howell is not conservative enough for you, you’ve got a problem,” he said.