RICHMOND — The battle for control of the Republican Party of Virginia continued to rage this week with revelations of new discord between three prominent elected officials and a group of increasingly powerful conservative activists.
The conflict centers around a request from three of Virginia’s Republican congressmen to state GOP leaders urging them to postpone a meeting last Saturday that was widely expected to feature a contentious showdown over control of party leadership posts.
Although seemingly arcane, the recent successes of conservative activists in securing key party positions — and their effort to continue doing so — hold consequences for how the GOP nominates candidates in elections. And it has made a growing number of Republicans uneasy about the GOP’s ability to elect statewide candidates or deliver Virginia for a Republican presidential candidate in 2016.
In a letter to state party leaders, U.S. Reps. H. Morgan Griffith, Robert Hurt and Scott Rigell said for the first time publicly that “growing rancor and division” within the party is a distraction from upcoming elections for U.S. Senate and the state’s 11-member congressional delegation.
In a letter to Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins, they wrote: “We respectfully suggest that the entire focus of our party’s leadership, and the grassroots activists whom they lead, should be focused on our shared priority for 2014: electing a Republican United States Senator and increasing our delegation in the House of Representatives from 8 to 10 members.”
But instead of deferring to the congressmen, party officials ignored the letter and carried on as planned Saturday with a meeting at which activists were scheduled to rule on appeals of internal elections they weren’t pleased with. The act of defiance showed how little influence publicly elected officials have over a state Republican Party whose leaders have no public profile but vast powers — and a newfound confidence — to control party politics across Virginia.
The tension between establishment and insurgent Republicans has simmered for years in Virginia, but it exploded after last year’s Democratic sweep of three statewide offices — and deepened in June when a coalition of tea party enthusiasts and activists helped unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The at-times nasty divide raises the prospect of more conservative primary challenges of sitting Republicans next year, when all General Assembly seats will be on the ballot. And looming over all of it is 2016, when an intraparty battle could gravely hinder Republicans’ ability to deliver Virginia, a key battleground state, to their presidential nominee.
In their letter, Griffith, Hurt and Rigell told activists that canceling the meeting would “send a signal that the Republican Party of Virginia is serious, unified and focused on winning in November.” They sent the letter Friday night, hours before the party was set to meet at a Hilton hotel in suburban Richmond.
But by some accounts, the move backfired, with some members of the conservative coalition calling it a “Hail Mary pass.”
Chris Stearns, a conservative coalition stalwart and chairman of the party’s 3rd Congressional District Committee, said he and others were offended by the letter and felt obligated to go forward with their committee election challenges.
“I have a problem with that,” he said of the letter’s message. “I think that’s wrong. When they do that, they’re undermining grassroots activists in the commonwealth of Virginia.”
In an interview Tuesday, Griffith downplayed the rift, struck a conciliatory tone, and said party officials have a job to do.
“I was really afraid that there would be a major problem within the grass roots. From my viewpoint, is that’s old news,” said Griffith, who is a former majority leader in the state House of Delegates. “I think in the end it’s all resolved. Let’s move on.”
According to people who attended, the eight-hour meeting of the Republican State Central Committee was contentious but never got out of control. Party activists hashed out rules and regulations for internal elections of officials who will ultimately determine whether the party uses state-run primaries open to all voters or party-run conventions that attract the most committed Republicans to nominate candidates. Conventions tend to result in more conservative nominees, while primaries, with larger electorates, can result in more moderate nominees.
“There was some parliamentary kung fu going on all day,” Stearns said. “Instead of using hand grenades, we were using Roberts Rules of Order.”
The Republican State Central Committee, which is dominated by the conservative coalition, heard several appeals of internal party elections.
In Fauquier County, for instance, party activists were divided over allegations that Democrats were allowed to vote in an internal party election that drew 1,200 votes. The committee ruled that local Republicans should have required voters to sign an oath of loyalty to the party, as is sometimes done in Virginia.
Similarly, in Campbell County in central Virginia, activists split over Democratic votes among a 581-person turnout, even though voters were asked to sign the loyalty oath.
In both instances, party leaders ordered a scheduled do-over of party elections. Establishment Republicans derided the rulings as a violation of the party’s rules, while the conservative coalition said they could have simply installed their loyalists but chose not to and wanted to set a precedent for making sure only Republicans vote in internal party elections.
Neil Vener, a former commonwealth’s attorney in Campbell County who is at the center of the battle there, said the State Central Committee’s rulings will hurt the party in the long run just as similar battles have weakened the party nationally.
“These kinds of intraparty fights at the expense of winning elections are not helpful. The party needs to heed the advice of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and not be the stupid party. Instead of fighting with each other, they need to actually win elections,” Vener said.
Party officials also discussed in private the recent flap over comments from party treasurer Bob FitzSimmonds, who questioned in a Facebook post how Muslims have contributed to U.S. society; officials came to no conclusion. FitzSimmonds has agreed to resign once a replacement can be found.
In the meantime, Republican members of Congress and the General Assembly are bracing for a raft of primary challenges stemming from growing unrest in the party.
“I don’t think there’s a single congressman now, even if they’re unopposed, who isn’t building up a war chest anticipating a problem election 22 months from now,” said a Virginia-based Republican consultant who has state and federal clients and did not want to be named talking about strategy. “Everyone expects it, everyone anticipates it. They’d be foolish not to.”