Ever since Dave Brat dethroned House Majority Leader Eric Cantor this month, the political newcomer has vowed to bring together the warring factions of the Republican Party.
But a dramatic showdown in a Republican committee meeting in Brat’s congressional district this week shows that Brat — and the party — have a long way to go.
Cantor loyalists who still sit on the 7th District Committee outmaneuvered Brat supporters to strip the committee of most of its budget — nearly $400,000. In a savvy bit of parliamentary procedure, they voted to send the money to national GOP organizations based in Washington — leaving empty-handed the conservative activists who planned to use the money to build a get-out-the-vote operation to complement Brat’s fledgling campaign.
The maneuver prompted an angry outcry from Brat’s camp.
“They just wanted to get the money out of the committee so we wouldn’t have it. It was retribution,” said Robert Stuber, a party leader from Spotsylvania County who supported Brat.
Establishment Republicans insist their plan is best for Brat as well as Ed Gillespie, the Republican Senate nominee for Virginia who is trying to unseat Mark R. Warner, the popular, one-term incumbent Democrat.
Either way, the well-orchestrated move is another example of a deep schism within the party that has played out across the country this primary season — with wins on both sides. Cantor fell to the tea-party-backed Brat, but Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran squeaked out a runoff victory Tuesday against tea-party candidate Chris McDaniel.
While Brat’s win represented a short-term victory for the tea party, it intensified the bitter rivalry between factions in the 7th Congressional District, a Republican stronghold stretching from suburban Richmond northwest toward the Shenandoah Valley. And that bodes ill for a party still trying to regroup from the Democratic sweep of all statewide contests last year — and trying to position itself to deliver a crucial swing state in the 2016 presidential election.
The first public sign of trouble for Cantor erupted at the 7th District convention in May, when Cantor was booed and his right-hand man, Linwood Cobb, was replaced as chairman of the district’s Republican committee by a tea-party backed opponent, Fred Gruber.
The loss was a major blow to Cantor — and set the stage for his even more shocking primary defeat a month later. But what few understood at the time was that Cantor’s longtime friends and supporters still held the majority of seats on the 7th District committee, which decides how hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent.
Most committees have tiny budgets to play with, but with Cobb as chairman, Cantor used the committee as a fundraising arm from which he could build up chits by sending checks to candidates in Virginia and all over the country. When Cantor lost the nomination, he left $336,000 in the bank, plus $139,000 in a separate account that also belonged to the committee.
In his first public meeting as chairman Wednesday night in a library in rural Goochland County, Gruber unveiled his proposal to spend $288,000 on a get-out-the-vote effort complete with 12 paid staffers, direct mail and call centers and equipment.
Before members could vote, longtime Cantor supporter Donald C. Williams passed out an alternative spending plan that doled out $150,000 to the Republican National Committee and $150,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. The plan also called for giving $5,000, the maximum allowed under federal campaign law, to Gillespie, Brat and nine other congressional candidates, $25,000 to a Republican seeking a crucial state Senate seat and $13,000 to the state GOP for a data system.
Thirteen committee members, including Cantor consultant Ray Allen, sided with Williams, who said his plan is the best way to ensure money will come back to Virginia to turn out voters for Brat and Gillespie — even though neither organization will commit to targeting those two races.
The NRCC did not return calls seeking comment. Gillespie spokesman Paul Logan declined to comment on the significance of the committee’s actions.
The RNC will reactivate a get-out-the-vote effort started last year in Virginia, but there’s no telling how extensive it will be.
“The Republican National Committee is running a fully funded victory campaign in Virginia to benefit Dave Brat, Ed Gillespie and [congressional candidate] Barbara Comstock, the rest of the Republican field,” spokesman Michael Short said, noting that a nationally supported “victory” office will open in Henrico County, in the 7th District.
Brat’s spokesman, Brian Gottstein, called it “extremely disappointing” that the money couldn’t be used for grass-roots activities.
“Now the 7th District Committee is filtering the majority of that money through Washington, and there’s no guarantee it will come back,” he said, adding: “Dave’s focus on unifying Republicans and folks of all stripes around bringing fiscal sanity back to Washington has resulted in financial support from across the 7th District and beyond.”
Though Brat made international headlines — he got calls from as far away as China and Saudia Arabia — he has just three paid staffers so far and has appeared, at times, to be unready for the national spotlight.
At the 7th District Committee meeting this week, campaign manager Amanda Chase spoke to supporters about the campaign’s efforts to avoid the media. “We have avoided the national media until today because people say they want us to stay in the district,” she said.
Brat continues to hammer on the themes of his campaign: repeal the Affordable Care Act, stop illegal immigration and reduce the debt and deficit. If elected, he said his first bill will propose term limits in the House, and he’s promised to serve a maximum of 12 years. Brat also pledged to meet with residents from every county once a month, assuming he defeats Democrat Jack Trammell for the seat in the heavily Republican district.
He’s still trying to get a handle on the issues of the day and said he hadn’t been following the controversy over the Redskins, whose training camp is in Richmond.
“I haven’t been following the sports pages at all. I look forward to having an active sports life after a few weeks,” Brat said.
In the meantime, Brat’s field operation is pretty basic. “If you know of a strawberry fest or a tomato fest or a Stars and Stripes fest, I guarantee you I’ll be there,” he said.
So far, he said, the biggest surprise has been how much people want to view his victory over Cantor as a comment on the national political scene.
“Everyone’s trying to interpret the meaning of it. I don’t think the evidence is in on that,” Brat said. “History takes some time to move before you can be too certain. . . . That’s the most surprising, just the breath of speculation as to what this race actually means.”
Even he doesn’t know.