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The rise and fall of the Virginia GOP

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

June 8, 2008 The strong dominance of the conservative wing of Virginia’s Republican Party at its May 31 state convention may be the tipping point that delivers the once-GOP stronghold into the Democratic column.

Former Gov. James Gilmore III (R), the heavy favorite for the GOP nod early on, won the US Senate nomination by less than 1% of the delegate votes over anti-abortion, anti-tax activist state Del. Robert Marshall, whom Gilmore outspent by eight-to-one. To add injury to insult, Marshall is declining to endorse Gilmore unless he changes his position on abortion. And state chairman John Hager, a former lieutenant governor whose son recently married President Bush’s daughter, lost by a landslide to conservative Del. Jeffery Frederick. Hager had the support of all the Republican members of Congress from Virginia as well as many county GOP chairmen, all to no avail.

“Imagine the embarrassment for Gilmore, a former governor, nearly defeated by a gadfly rightwing state legislator,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. The same chagrin was probably also felt by Hager, 72, a former lieutenant governor whose son married President Bush’s daughter just two weeks before. Frederick, the new state chair, is 32 years old and has been in the House of Delegates for four years. He is known primarily for his conservative views.

Abortion, Turnout Helped Conservatives

The issue that helped Marshall almost beat Gilmore was abortion. Gilmore believes abortions should be legal in the first trimester of pregnancy, while Marshall believes life begins at conception. Although he has been a maverick to strict conservatism on environmental issues, Marshall is more typically leading such causes as banning abortion and outlawing same-sex marriage. Marshall’s pro-life stance has substantial support, probably from about half of Virginia’s voters; a Washington Post poll taken last year found that 54% of Virginians favor abortion in most circumstances, indicating 46% do not.

Aside from these numbers, however, the problem with making that issue the litmus test for candidates is that abortion is not that important an issue to many voters. When asked to name issues that concern them, abortion shows up “in single digits, in with family and moral values, in current polls. It’s not a top of the mind issue,” says Larry Harris of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, a firm that frequently surveys Virginia voters.

Another factor that helped the conservative insurgents was that the turnout, at about 3,000 delegates, was less than half the number expected, and a third to a quarter of the turnout at past conventions. As is often the case when a party loses favor, those who showed up were part of the GOP’s hardcore, and well to the right of most voters, even most Republicans. The poor attendance not only helped the conservative faction but “demonstrates again the lack of enthusiasm this year for many Republican candidates,” notes Sabato.

Negative Repercussions for the State GOP

The party’s “complete takeover by the far-right,” as Sabato put it, may have serious repercussions for Virginia’s GOP. The growing power of the anti-tax conservatives had already alienated such moderate Republicans as former state Sen. John Chichester (R), once chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the longest serving Republican in the upper chamber. He is now appearing in a television spot for former governor Mark Warner, the Democrats’ US Senate nominee. Moreover, retiring US Sen. John Warner (R), long an outsider among his home-state Republicans, has so far declined to endorse Gilmore, a conservative though less conservative than Marshall, who almost beat him. (Thus Gilmore has problems with both the right and the left in his own party.)

Moreover, the party’s big money folks are seething. Following Frederick’s defeat of Hager in the state chairman’s race, Fred Malek, the nationally connected state finance chairman for the Virginia GOP, promptly resigned. Similarly, many in the business community, centered in Richmond and dubbed “the Main Street boys,” are distressed by the latest turn of events in the state’s Republican Party, and are likely to curtail -- if not end -- their financial support for the Virginia GOP. “Not a penny more,” one former donor reportedly commented. “They are defunding the party,” adds a knowledgeable observer.

In addition, there is one report that some of the old line, well-heeled Republicans may form an independent group to raise funds and distribute them to candidates in both parties who meet their pro-business, center-right criteria, rather than work through the state GOP as they have in the past. If this does happen, the GOP -- once the fair-haired favorite of the state’s business interests -- will have to raise money from small donors and conservative groups. It’s been done -- note Barack Obama’s multi-million dollar success among liberals -- but it will likely result in the state’s Republicans taking a major financial hit, certainly in the short run.

The conservatives who dominated the convention were not just social conservatives, but also against any tax increases, an issue that has seriously divided their party, resulting in the defeat of several moderates in Republican Primaries in recent years. Gilmore was at one with these insurgents on taxes, but the strong showing of the Marshall faction could still have an impact on the upcoming session of the Virginia legislature. Few Republicans in the General Assembly are likely to be comfortable supporting Gov. Tim Kaine’s (D) proposals to raise funds for transportation improvements.

The GOP’s Decline

The precipitous decline of the Virginia GOP is apparent in the state’s recent election results. In 2002, one year after President George W. Bush’s inauguration, Republicans dominated Virginia politics. The governor, both US Senators and seven of the state’s 11 US House members were Republicans (eight if you count an independent who later switched to the GOP). In addition, both houses of the legislature had Republican majorities.

Today, the governor and one US Senator are Democrats, and the other Senate seat is almost certainly to go Democratic this fall. The Democrats are also poised to take one US House seat, maybe more, in the state. The state senate is now controlled by Democrats and although the House of Delegates remains under Republican control, the GOP’s margin has gone from 30 seats in 2002 to 10 in 2008

As if the GOP’s internal problems weren’t bad enough, last week Obama opened his post-Hillary campaign in Virginia, pledging to carry the state in November, a first for the Democrats since 1964 -- and according to opinion polls, he has a good a chance of doing just that.

   
   

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