S. Vance Wilkins Jr. figures that if there’s anyone who can teach Virginia’s Republican Party a thing or two about comebacks, it’s him.
In 2000, Wilkins scaled political heights by delivering the Virginia House of Delegates to the GOP and becoming its first Republican speaker. But he was deposed after just two years, a forced resignation following revelations that he’d paid $100,000 to a woman who had accused him of sexual harassment.
Now, Wilkins is back, looking for redemption — not just for himself, but for a party once again in need of a boost.
Wilkins, 77, is trying to stage his return to politics from his home in rural Amherst County. He hopes to help run the Republican Party again and turn around two years of dismal electoral results.
Whether he’s the man to steer the GOP to victory — and whether his party even wants him — will be decided Saturday, when he will challenge the sitting chairman of the party’s 6th Congressional District Committee.
His reemergence calls attention to the deep challenges his party faces in a state where rapid demographic shifts have brought Democratic victories in the past two presidential elections and the most recent contests for all five statewide offices: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and two U.S. Senate seats.
But his gambit also tests the limits of political forgiveness. In his day, Wilkins was a disciplined, effective strategist credited with drawing out the Republican grass roots across Virginia. Today, his selling point is that he could have put a stop to the Democratic sweep in the fall.
That may not be enough for a man forced out of office by his own party over a salacious sex scandal — or for a party trying hard to improve its image among women.
“How many hits are we going to take for the ‘Republican war on women’?’” asked longtime Roanoke County GOP activist Trixie Averill, who has endorsed Wilkins’s opponent, Wendell Walker. “My gosh, perceived or real, he is the poster child for it.”
These days, Wilkins spends much of his time in his home office. Sometimes in sweatpants, always surrounded by his collection of Wild West paintings and iconography, he works the telephone and works it again, reaching out to activists across western Virginia who will decide his future at the 6th District Republican convention Saturday.
Making all those calls is grinding work for a near-octogenarian who hasn’t been visible in state politics for more than a decade.
Wilkins’s pitch is simple: “I transformed Virginia politics by taking the House. I’ve gotten so frustrated because we’ve been losing elections we didn’t have to lose. I thought I’d come back and offer my services. Maybe I can do it again.”
Maybe so, but maybe Wilkins’s history is too much for him to overcome.
Twelve years ago, The Washington Post reported that Wilkins had paid $100,000 to Jennifer L. Thompson, then 26 and a former Wilkins staffer in Amherst, to settle a sexual harassment claim out of court. Thompson alleged that, a year earlier, the then-65-year-old Wilkins groped her and pinned her against office furniture.
Shortly after the article appeared, a second woman — Elizabeth P. Massie — said Wilkins had rubbed her leg at a Christmas party.
The scandal consumed Virginia political circles, with much of the anger coming from Wilkins’s Republican colleagues. Wilkins never admitted publicly that he had harassed the women; he said he settled the case with Thompson to protect the GOP. But the damage was done. He resigned a week after the story broke.
Wilkins has spent the past several years quietly working with a handful of campaigns. More recently, he stepped back into the public eye with a coalition of grass-roots activists and tea party members to challenge Walker.
At stake is a key role in managing the GOP apparatus in what has become the most conservative congressional district in Virginia. The 6th District, which stretches north from Roanoke and Lynchburg through the Shenandoah Valley, is represented in Congress by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Goodlatte has held the seat since 1993, never winning less than 60 percent of the vote.
Despite that dominance, the party has splintered into factions with different ideas on how to rebuild after losing a string of high-profile statewide races in 2012 and 2013.
Wilkins said he was galvanized by last year’s Democratic sweep, especially the razor-thin loss by state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) in the race for attorney general.
“Mitt Romney got 76,000 more votes in the 6th District than Obenshain did,” Wilkins said. Obenshain “lost the whole state by less than 1,000 votes, and we had 76,000 people who voted Republican [a year before]. I just know we could have gotten another 1,000 votes out of the 6th District.”
Wilkins faces an uphill battle against Walker, who got his start in the late ’70s working in Lynchburg with Jerry Falwell to establish the Moral Majority movement.
By the late ’90s, Walker was known as an evangelical conservative pushing for Republicans to take strong social positions, while Wilkins was the GOP’s pragmatic strategist working to keep the party from tilting too far right.
Now the roles have flipped: Walker is trying to maintain peace, while Wilkins is galvanizing the same conservatives and libertarians who booed Goodlatte during his 2012 district convention speech and later circulated a poster with his photograph and reading “Wanted! For Impersonating a Constitutional Conservative.”
Wilkins is finding less traction among party leaders. Obenshain, whose loss in the fall is at the heart of Wilkins’s pitch, endorsed Walker for chairman. So did Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Bedford).
Even among conservative activists, the scandal looms large in some voters’ minds.
“It can’t be ignored, from a woman’s point of view,” said Cher McCoy, a former chairwoman of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee who campaigned against Goodlatte during his 2012 primary.
Wilkins isn’t very introspective about the scandal, although he may be acknowledging the limitations of his fitness for public life when he insists that he has no interest in elective office himself.
“Actually, after having been speaker, this is quite a step down,” he said. “I just got so frustrated with losing. . . . I got frustrated with losing elections we don’t have to lose.”
He also acknowledges the power of the baggage.
“I know my opponent is having people Google me and things like that,” he said. “I expected it, and I’m willing to take it.”
In the meantime, he keeps plugging away on the phone, one call at a time. In one half-hour stretch on a recent weekday, Wilkins reached one person — who was going to be out of town during the convention.