Russ Moulton did not have a vote when leaders of the Republican Party of Virginia convened on a Saturday earlier this year.
He didn’t need one. He had his right thumb, raising it above his head to signal his allies that they should vote to unseat one of their own.
He got what he wanted.
An archetype of American politics is the power broker, that behind-the-scenes tactician whose influence is tied to a gush of campaign contributions and access to elected officials.
Russ Moulton is of a different cut.
Unelected and unknown to the public, Moulton, 53, led a takeover of Virginia’s GOP by tea party and libertarian activists, and he was a key operative in last year’s stunning overthrow of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Moulton’s current preoccupation is pushing the state party to choose a presidential nominee in a way that benefits the most conservative candidates. But in a swing state that will be crucial to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, his fiercest critics — fellow Republicans — say he is threatening the party’s quest to reclaim the White House.
“The party’s facing challenges as great as it ever has, and it’s because of the agenda he drives,” said Mike Thomas, the state GOP’s vice chairman. “He has the most say over what happens in the organization of anyone within the Republican Party, bar none.”
A failed candidate for public office, Moulton has amassed influence through three decades of activism in Virginia, during which he has championed such conservative candidates as Oliver North and former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II.
Along the way, he delved into the byzantine world of internal Republican politics. Meeting by meeting, he and his allies seized the party’s machinery by pushing candidates in organizational elections unnoticed beyond the most fervent political circles.
Last fall, for example, Moulton recruited a 73-year-old tea party activist to challenge Cantor’s top lieutenant for a GOP committee chairmanship, even lending the candidate $5,000 for the filing fee.
Moulton’s horse won, fueling Cantor’s fall a month later.
“The man has a backbone like iron,” said Shaun Kenney, the state party’s former executive director, who called Moulton “the dean” of Virginia’s conservatives. “It’s ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington’ if Mr. Smith knew what he was doing.”
The owner of a technology firm when not in the Republican trenches, Moulton grew up in Spotsylvania County and attended the U.S. Naval Academy, where he discovered Ronald Reagan.
He still lives 50 miles from Washington, drives a cluttered minivan and, beneath a crucifix in his home office, disseminates strategy “to save the Republic.”
The villains in Moulton’s narrative are tax-hiking Republicans and their political consultants — “the establishment” — who are “rigging the system for the next guy they’ve anointed.”
The white knights, he said, are activists defending “core principles of our creed.”
The story Moulton’s detractors tell is less flattering.
Moulton’s faction, they say, has damaged the state GOP more than even Democrats, pushing the party to the far right and alienating moderates and business donors. Virginia’s GOP has not won a statewide race since 2009.
“Based on results, you’d think Terry McAuliffe was running the Republican Party,” said Cord Sterling, a Stafford County Republican. Referring to Moulton, he said, “He’s the most effective weapon the Democrats have.”
Moulton said his rivals overstate his importance to create a “bogeyman” for the party’s failings. In fact, he doesn’t get all he wants, he said. Candidates he backs sometimes lose. He himself lost an organizational election a few years ago.
Moulton prefers to call himself a “catalyst” and “facilitator” as he acknowledges helping lead an effort to wrest control of the party from establishment Republicans. “I learned from them,” Moulton said. “Now they’re frustrated because we’re playing by their rules, and grass-roots conservatives are winning.”
As he spoke, Moulton was at home, a five-bedroom lakefront house in Fredericksburg, where the books on a dining room shelf include the Constitution and Holy Bible.
“Enter as strangers, Leave as Friends” read the sign in the foyer, among several others including: “Live a Good Life” and “Count Your Blessings.”
“My wife picks out every one,” Moulton said. “I don’t even know what half of them are. They don’t even register.”
His whirlwind of a life includes three children, two dogs and a tech company that develops sensor software used to train pilots and test missile systems. His rivals point to the firm’s defense contracts — $12 million since 2000 — as evidence of his hypocrisy.
“Here’s a guy who’s in bed with tea party folks, who preaches small government and less government but doesn’t mind taking government money,” said Linwood Cobb, the Cantor lieutenant who lost to the Moulton-backed candidate.
Moulton countered that his company provides “great value at a reasonable price.”
“We have never received an ‘earmark’ and have never lobbied elected officials for a dime,” he said. “Yes, I believe in limited government and lower taxes, and we practice it.”
For a time, Moulton tried to join the incumbents club he now rails against but lost two state Senate campaigns. After his second defeat, in 1995, he won a seat on the party’s governing board before retreating to a behind-the-scenes role.
Over the years, he has contributed more than $50,000 to conservative candidates personally or through his company. But what he’s known for is “putting the grass roots in a position to have greater influence,” said Pat McSweeney, the party’s former chairman.
Moulton’s motivation can seem confounding in a realm where favors and jobs are often the rewards. His activism pays nothing and requires him to drive nights and weekends to political meetings across the state, a ritual that includes finding an Applebee’s at day’s end for his usual Caesar salad (no croutons) and beer.
“Why did the Founders do it?” he asked, leaning forward, his gray-green eyes intent as he explained what drives him.“What did they get out of it? They believed in something. You ever just believe in something?”
As much as he seems to thrive on conflict, he often finds himself in an uncomfortable role. “To have people upset at you because you’re criticizing a fellow Republican — you think I enjoy that?” he asked. “I do it because it has to be done.”
Moulton shares his beliefs with his conservative network through e-mail, chiding such Republicans as House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) for supporting a tax increase that “destroyed our brand.”
In one e-mail, he warned legislators they’d be “Cantor’d!” if they didn’t oppose Virginia’s same-sex marriage law — Moulton-speak for taking on incumbents who defy “core Republican principles.”
The way to “save our Republic,” he wrote, is “conservatives organizing precinct-by-precinct, and seat-by-seat.”
“Can you imagine what we could accomplish with a President Paul or President Cruz?” he wrote.
Moulton and his team used that same incremental approach to take control of Virginia’s GOP.
A key moment occurred during the 2009 gubernatorial race. Bill Bolling, then the lieutenant governor, promised to support Robert F. McDonnell for governor. McDonnell, in turn, vowed to endorse Bolling four years later.
When McDonnell won, Bolling was the heir apparent.
But Moulton and his allies went to work, recruiting 13 candidates to run in internal party elections across the state. A dozen won, shifting the dynamics at the party’s governing board.
For the first time, Moulton’s faction — an ad hoc group that is known as the Conservative Fellowship — held a majority. Admission to the fellowship, Moulton said, is driven by one requirement: a preference for conventions over primaries to nominate Republicans.
A convention tends to attract the party’s most ardent conservatives.
A primary, because it is extended and draws a larger electorate — including Democrats, Republicans and independents — favors well-financed establishment candidates.
“If you’re voting for the leader of the Kiwanis Club, do they open it up to the Lions Club?” Moulton asked, explaining his opposition to primaries.
With the fellowship in command, the party reversed its decision to hold a gubernatorial primary — infuriating Bolling. Cuccinelli, a grass-roots favorite and a close Moulton ally, won the Republican nomination at the party convention.
“Were we supposed to honor a deal we had nothing to do with?” Moulton asked. “This is not a monarchy. You earn it with the grass roots.”
But it’s also the way to ensure defeat, his detractors say. McAuliffe won the governor’s race after casting Cuccinelli as an extremist — Exhibit A, they say, of why Moulton’s GOP cannot win statewide.
On a Sunday in March, Moulton sent an urgent e-mail to his allies.
“CONFIDENTIAL,” he wrote. “DO NOT SHARE OR FORWARD.”
He described a plan to quickly raise $30,000 to help the party “survive” and keep it “free” from “consultant-style bullying” and “control by elected officials.”
The 2016 presidential race, he promised, could create an $800,000 “wind-fall” for the party if it charged fees for candidates and delegates to participate in “Virginia Caucuses” — meetings and conventions to choose a nominee.
His rivals don’t share his enthusiasm. A convention, they warned, would produce a nominee untested with the broader electorate.
“It’s almost on the lunatic fringe to think you can take a candidate only a small percentage of people are going to vote for and put them out there,” said Mike Wade, a former party official.
Leaders expect a decision to be made over the summer.
In the meantime, Moulton’s rivals say his faction is trying to purge the party of dissent. At a meeting in January, despite protests, the party’s governing board unseated a district chairman accused of violating organizational rules. With his hand signals, Moulton could be seen encouraging Conservative Fellowship members to vote for the dismissal.
“A lot of people are plain scared of him,” said Thomas, the state GOP’s vice chairman. “They’re scared he’ll come after them.”
Moulton dismissed the concern.
“Everyone’s an independent thinker,” he said. “It’s not because Russ Moulton walks up to them and says, ‘If you don’t vote the way I want, you’re out.’ ”
But he makes no secret about who’s in charge.
“We, the conservative grassroots of Virginia, now control,” he wrote in the fundraising e-mail to his allies, as if anyone needed reminding.