RICHMOND — The Republican Party of Virginia paints a dire picture of what’s at stake in this year’s elections in a recent letter to its donors: Republican losses in statewide races would destroy the party’s pro-business agenda, scare away national attention and set Virginia on a path “toward being viewed as Maryland or New Jersey, a solid Democrat state.”
It’s not unusual to sound the alarm to scare up money, but the memo — obtained by The Washington Post — goes on to lay out a statewide strategy in rare detail, providing an unusual glimpse behind the curtain of what all sides agree is a crucial election year.
The main thrust involves registering thousands of voters in rural parts of the state, with the assumption that they will vote Republican. Adding them to the party base “can ensure that there will be [as] little reliance upon swing voters to deliver a General Election victory as possible,” the letter says.
Swing voters tend to be in such suburban areas as Northern Virginia and have gone increasingly for Democrats in state and federal elections. The letter goes on to conclude: “The stakes for the Commonwealth are incredibly crucial and if our Party is not able to fundamentally alter the electorate through voter registration, 2017 will be the last year Virginia is mentioned as ‘Tossup’ for the foreseeable future.”
John Whitbeck, the Republican Party’s state chairman, declined to speak about the letter. “We don’t give our playbook to the other team in the middle of the game,” Whitbeck said. “We don’t comment on internal strategy in documents like this.”
But he did address some of the main points, starting with the idea that a statewide loss would be a Republican body blow.
The two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for governor — Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello — have “made themselves so far outside the mainstream,” Whitbeck said. “If we can’t beat people with as extreme progressive views as these two gentlemen believe, then we are a blue state.”
While he cast it in ideological terms, there is a deeper concern reflected in the letter that Virginia’s demographics are changing in a way that threatens Republicans over the long term.
Although Republicans control both houses of the General Assembly, they have had little success in winning statewide elections. The governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and both U.S. senators are all Democrats. As the letter puts it, “Given the Democrats’ recent streak of statewide victories, the question has been publicly muted — can Republicans still win statewide in Virginia?”
It says the answer is yes and that the key is voter registration, which has been a touchy issue among Republicans.
“It puts the Republicans in a strange position,” said Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington. “On the one hand, Republicans talk about increasing the number of registered voters in rural areas, but the party hasn’t always been that supportive of making it easier for people to register in other parts of the state,” such as in urban areas that tend to vote Democratic.
But the letter lays out a strategy. A party database suggests that there are 200,000 unregistered voters who are likely to vote Republican in the Shenandoah Valley, Southwest and south of the James River. If there is low turnout this fall, which could be expected in a nonpresidential election year, a registration drive could turn out enough voters to counter heavily Democratic northern Virginia.
Virginia does not register voters by party, and anyone can vote in either party’s primary elections.
Republican gubernatorial candidates — front-runner Ed Gillespie, state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach) and Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart — can’t afford to invest in registration drives, the letter says.
And outside groups such as PACs and 501(c) charities face difficulties in signing up people for a particular party. Because of their tax-free status, such groups “have to mask their intentions in public advocacy appeals or by not saying words such as ‘Register Republican’ or ‘Vote Republican,’ ” it says.
That indirect approach winds up making it cost more to register voters through outside groups — from $35 to $50 per voter, according to the letter. The state Republican Party, on the other hand, faces no such restrictions and can drive registration at a much cheaper cost — $20 or less per voter. So the letter asks donors to help the party raise $250,000 by June 1 and $2 million by the November election to register and turn out 100,000 voters.
It’s unusual to see those economics spelled out. “I’ve never seen it laid out in a letter like that, but you hear people talk about that kind of stuff,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. “I find the detail and the strategy in the letter fascinating, but this is what a high-dollar donor needs to see.”
The strategy makes sense, he said, but has limitations. While it may be cheaper for the party to mount a registration drive, voters may be less likely to respond to an overtly partisan message. And even if Republicans meet their goals in rural parts of the state, high turnout in heavily populated Northern Virginia could still swamp those numbers, he said.
Another factor weighing on Republicans this year is that they face more competition than ever for House of Delegates seats, all 100 of which are up for election. Republicans hold a comfortable 66-to-34 advantage in the House. Typically, incumbents face little or no opposition, especially in districts that are solidly red. But this year, Democrats are running in 85 of the 100 districts — a historic high — while Republicans are running in 73.
The state Democratic Party dismissed the letter’s contention that rural voters are guaranteed to vote Republican.
“The Republican Party is so disconnected from working Virginians that they freely admit that the only way they can win is to ‘fundamentally alter the electorate,’ ” said Virginia Democratic Party spokeswoman Katie Baker. “That strategy is consistent with their repeated attempts to block redistricting reform, as rigging the maps through gerrymandering accomplishes the same end: the fundamental alteration of the electorate.”
The letter makes a case that this year’s elections could sharply alter the state’s redistricting efforts, which have been controlled by the Republican legislature.
Whitbeck said the fear is not that Republicans will lose their majority in the House — which he said is virtually impossible — but that a Democratic governor would veto any redistricting plan drawn up by Republicans. That would throw the matter to the courts, where, Whitbeck said, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond is heavy with appointees from Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
That seems like a stretch, Farnsworth said, given how long and complicated redistricting efforts always are. Also a stretch, he said, is the letter’s claim that Democratic wins would endanger Virginia’s status as a swing state, which makes it attractive to national political donors.
“Virginia is still a swing state,” Farnsworth said. But it makes sense to try to stir up the party’s base.
“I think the stakes for the 2017 election for governor in Virginia are extraordinarily high,” he said. “Both parties will look to the Virginia governor’s race as a key barometer on how well or how poorly President Trump is doing, and both parties are going to want all hands on deck for the campaigns this year.”
The Republican letter is a novel strategy, said longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth.
“This is essentially a new approach to fundraising — explicitly using voter analytics to address the GOP’s losing performance in recent statewide elections and showing how it could be turned around,” Holsworth said. “I’m unsure how successful it will be, but I think that it’s clever — it appeals to activists who are extremely interested in politics and addresses them as sophisticated consumers of political information.”