“We’re at rock bottom,” said Matt Colt Hall, a southwest Virginia native and political commentator for the conservative blog Bearing Drift. “We can only go up from there.”
But House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who in January will be demoted to minority leader, sternly warned party activists that things could get worse if they don’t move past petty infighting and learn how to appeal to suburban voters who have left the party in droves since the election of President Trump.
The goal he laid out for the party was not to plot a roaring comeback but to “regain a foothold in Virginia.”
“I hate to be dire and I hate to chastise my brethren, but we’ve got to come together,” Gilbert told a sparse breakfast crowd Saturday. “We are going to have to weather a storm, and we’re going to have to weather it together. If we don’t weather it together, we’re not going to make it.”
In all, about 350 Republicans attended the weekend-long event at the Omni Homestead Resort, the state party said, down from 400 to 700 in recent years. The annual gathering was named the “Republican Advance” years ago to signal a party on the rise. That optimistic branding seemed less apt than ever.
Some of the elected officials, grass-roots activists and 2020 congressional contenders in attendance saw a grim silver lining: Democrats in control of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion for the first time in a generation might usher in such sweeping liberal laws that they alienate swing voters.
“We’ve been telling Virginians that if the Democrats took control, the pendulum would swing so far left that they wouldn’t recognize Virginia. And I think they didn’t believe us,” said state Sen. John A. Cosgrove Jr. (R-Chesapeake). “And now they’ve seen all the bills that have been submitted, both in the House and the Senate, especially the gun-control bills and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and that type of thing. I think Virginians are saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, they were right.’ . . . I just think that once this session is over, Virginia is gonna look in the mirror and say, ‘What have we done?’ ”
Pete Snyder, a Northern Virginia businessman who unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013, said the Democrats’ full control in Richmond could lay the groundwork for a Republican running for governor in 2021. Handing out drinks with his wife in a hospitality suite he co-hosted, Snyder was coy about whether he is mulling a bid.
“Look, I’m an entrepreneur, and whenever I see monopolies that may overreach, I think there’s signs for opportunity,” he said.
Asked to respond to the notion that Virginia Democrats will overreach and pave the way for a Republican comeback, Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Jake Rubenstein said, “Bless their hearts.”
But many Republicans said they were confident that Democrats would go too far in Richmond. They likewise saw an upside in the leftward shift of the national Democratic Party, and the looming impeachment of Trump by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. Republicans think both will turn off swing voters.
With a hospitality suite advertised as “The Secret Whistleblower Bar,” Republicans mocked the impeachment effort. “Join us to wet your whistle and blow the lid off this impeachment scam,” read the invitation from the three hosts: Snyder; Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.); and John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who was chairman of Trump’s 2016 Virginia campaign.
Riggleman faces a primary challenge from Bob Good, a senior official at Liberty University, inspired at least in part by the congressman’s decision to preside over a same-sex wedding in July. The couple he married were scheduled to attend the GOP’s dinner Saturday night.
“We do not need to eat our own right now after what just happened in the statehouse,” said Riggleman, who owns a Nelson County distillery with his wife, referring to Good’s bid against him.
Good did not attend, and his campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Most of the buzz at the event centered on the potential to take back the 7th District House seat occupied by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). Spanberger, a former CIA officer, won the suburban Richmond seat in 2018 from Republican Dave Brat.
Republicans note that several GOP legislative candidates held on in that district this year despite Trump’s deep unpopularity there. Eight Republicans are in the race, and several of them were at the Homestead to woo activists. Among the candidates in attendance were Tina Ramirez, a single mother and nonprofit founder; Del. John J. McGuire III (R-Henrico); and Andrew Knaggs, a former Green Beret and former defense official in the Trump administration.
The best-known of the contenders, Del. Nicholas J. Freitas (R-Culpeper), was said to be back in the district campaigning.
“That’s a big focus here,” said Maggie Cleary, 28, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Culpeper and a Republican activist. “We have so many great candidates in the 7th.”
Three Republicans vying for the right to take on Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) next year hosted suites: former congressman Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL who lost his Virginia Beach district to a Democrat last year; Daniel Gade, an Army veteran who lost a leg in Iraq; and Thomas Speciale, an Army reservist.
“Sometimes you fall down, you get back up, you dust your knees off, you move forward,” Taylor said, speaking of the party generally. “You could argue and say this is the bottom of the barrel right now for us. Sometimes that has to happen so that you can really take a self-assessment and get better and learn and move forward.”