By Hastings Wyman –
The Republican Party in Virginia has gone from riches to rags over the past decade. The state that once provided reliable GOP victories in presidential elections – from 1968 through 2004 – as well as Republican governors, US Senators and a veto-proof majority in the state’s House of Delegates is now in the Safe Democratic category. The governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well as both US Senators, are Democrats. A Republican has not won a statewide office since Bob McDonald’s ill-fated victory in 2009.
Along with the decline in electoral victories, the Party’s organizational structure, its muscle, if you will, has also atrophied. A prime example is in Arlington County, a suburb of Washington. The county, says Morton Blackwell, Virginia’s longtime Republican National Committeeman, “used to have a waiting list to be on the Republican county committee. That’s not the case now. There are many, many vacancies. The list of where vacancies are is not shared with members of the committee. The reason is that some on the committee don’t want their neighbors to know they are Republicans.”
Along with the vacancies in party positions, many Democratic officeholders go unchallenged, notes Blackwell. “There should be a Republican candidate for every office that is up. The only qualification: Will that person do a good job.” He points out that candidates can be good for the party. “If an open seat occurs, or there is a bitter Democratic primary, a Republican candidate should be there to take advantage of the opportunity. You can do it if you work on it. I expect it will be done.”
Noting that the Democrats far outspent the GOP, he says “Ed Gillespie had quite a strong youth effort, including three youth coordinators. The budget for Youth for Gillespie was $62,800, more than ever before. The Washington Post reported that Next Generation Virginia, largely funded by Tom Steyer, spent over $3 million organizing on college campuses.” Using email, they identified Northup voters “then hired hundreds of them. Steyer will spend $30 million in 2018.”
Money and organizational strength, however, tend to follow electoral success, and Virginia’s Republican Party has remained firmly in the control of hard line conservatives, especially on social issues.
“Virginia is not a two-party state,” says former US Rep. Tom Davis (R). “It is two states, half New Jersey and half Alabama.”
The ‘New Jersey’ half includes most of the suburbs, where voters have often moved to the state from elsewhere. These voters are well-off financially, but less conservative on social issues. “Statewide, the state party has not accepted the New Jersey part at all,” Davis continues. “The seats we lost (in the House of Delegates last year) were all suburban. In the Alabama state, we didn’t lose any… Assuming we lose the Senate race next fall, and that’s probably a pretty safe bet, we will have gone a decade without winning a statewide race. The leadership has to decide whether to go the way of California or to be relevant.”
The first test of the GOP’s future in Virginia comes this fall, when US Sen. Tim Kaine (D), Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, is up for reelection. At this early stage, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination is Corey Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors of Prince William County. Stewart, a pro-Trump GOPer, almost blindsided the Party establishment last year by coming within 4,320 votes of winning the gubernatorial nomination over Ed Gillespie. Gillespie’s main issue was – and continues to be – the preservation of the state’s Confederate monuments.
“Stewart will have the same base of support and a network of supporters,” says Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “He is ahead of everyone else” in the June 12 primary. The other candidates include Nick Frietas, a conservative state Delegate who is the de facto candidate of the Gillespie crowd. “But Frietas is unknown and may not be their best option.” Also running is E. W. Jackson, the African-American preacher and nominee for lieutenant governor in 2013. Jackson’s primary prospects are slight, but he could pull some votes from Stewart.
Opines Skelley, “With Stewart as the sort of frontrunner … it’s going to be unfavorable for Republicans. It just remains to be seen how unfavorable. It is difficult to see an obvious path to victory for Stewart.”
If Stewart loses by nine points, as Gillespie did last year, it could make some of the congressional races difficult for the GOP. But is he loses by, say, 15 points, it could cost Republicans several congressional seats, including those currently held by Barbara Comstock, Scott Taylor, or maybe even Dave Brat or Tom Garrett.
“I’m not sure in this environment that Kaine can be defeated,” says Skelley. “If the national environment improves for Republicans, they might get a stronger nominee, perhaps a congressman.” Or congresswoman. Should Comstock, 58, decide to give up her highly vulnerable 10th District seat and run for the Senate, she would present a fresh face for Republicans in Virginia. For now, however, it looks like Alabama, not New Jersey, is on top in Virginia’s GOP, to the benefit of the Democrats. Stay tuned.