If there's one lesson from the past week, it's that inside-baseball Virginia political fights can have mammoth national implications.
Virginia Republicans disagree on the depth and breadth of their divisions. But there's one interesting point of consensus, and it's that Ed Gillespie is a strong U.S. Senate candidate, and -- they add, with fingers crossed -- perhaps the cure to what ails the long-fissured Virginia conservative movement.
Former Lieutenant Gov. Bill Bolling said that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's loss to primary challenger-cum-professor Dave Brat has some center-right Virginia Republicans worried that they are losing the party they used to run.
“There are a lot of more traditional Republicans right now who are scratching their heads and wondering what happened to their party,” he said.
What happened is this: There are essentially two loosely-defined groups in the Virginia Republican/conservative universe. Nomenclature is tricky, and it's probably an oversimplification to characterize one side as “The Establishment” and the other as “The Tea Party.” But loosely defined, one group's members tend to want to choose nominees through nominating conventions -- which lend more influence to grassroots activists -- while the other prefers primaries, which tend to result in more moderate, center-right candidate picks.
The preference for nomination method isn't the No. 1 issue for these people, but it's a good litmus test of where political movers stand. Former Virginia Attorney General and 2013 gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli's allies, for instance, pushed hard for a nominating convention, while Bolling and his supporters favored a primary to choose who would run for governor against Terry McAuliffe.
Getting Cuccinelli nominated was a big win for Team Tea Party/Grassroots/Libertarian-leaning/Social Conservative/whatever you want to call them. And Brat’s astounding defeat of Cantor in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District represents another huge setback for Virginia’s center-right Republicans.
“The conservative wing of the party, which is huge anyway, has firm control of the Virginia GOP,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, in an email. “It's difficult to see how the moderates or moderate-conservatives ever regain power within the party.”
Jim Gilmore, who was the state’s governor from 1998 to 2002, describes the ascendant conservative wing of the party this way: “This is not a quirky group of off-beat people that are just simply making trouble in the party and are to be disregarded. They are a voice of people who are not happy with the direction of the nation.”
National Republicans ignore them at their peril, he added.
But the narrative isn't as simple as insurgent grassroots folks taking over the Virginia GOP and driving anyone remotely centrist into the outer dark. Even though the Old Dominion has entered a post-Cantor era, people who are more Bolling and less Tea Party have grounds for optimism: Gillespie, who will face Democratic incumbent Mark Warner this fall, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte.
First, Goodlatte: As the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the bespectacled 11-term congressman draws constant scrutiny and criticism from opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, who charge that he supports amnesty (recall this Breitbart headline from January: “GOP’s Bob Goodlatte: ‘No Reason’ Not To Give Illegal Immigrants Amnesty”). But — in a sharp contrast with Cantor — Goodlatte didn’t even have a primary challenger this cycle.
One long-time Virginia Republican observer said this is because Goodlatte is an animal when it comes to retail politicking. When Goodlatte heads home to Roanoke for weekends and recess, he wends his way down Interstate 81, taking 10 hours to make what would be a four-hour drive. En route, he stops in small towns, working the district. The source said he’s probably personally met most of the people who have voted for him by now.
And Goodlatte doesn’t shy away from meeting with Tea Party activists.
“You have to show these folks respect,” said the source. “A lot of times that means showing up at the meetings, sitting down, and getting yelled at.”
It works for Goodlatte. And, so far, it’s also worked for Gillespie. A few minutes after the Associated Press called the race for Brat, Gillespie tweeted congratulations to the nominee.
“Looking forward to a winning ticket in November!” he wrote.
Gillespie isn’t a grassroots darling the way Cuccinelli was. But he’s worked hard to reach out to leading activists. A source familiar with the Gillespie campaign points out that the candidate has never gone on the record criticizing the Tea Party, and likes to say that growing pains are better than shrinking pains. And while Gillespie didn’t endorse in local unit chair elections, he called both the winners and losers after each vote and asked for their support.
Those kind of overtures helped a candidate known for his work in George W. Bush's presidential administration and at the RNC gain trust among many grassroots activists. That's evinced by the fact that Gillespie won handily at the nominating convention.
“There's a real emphasis right now on making sure you're listening and hearing the voice of the grassroots,” said Shaun Kenney, the executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. “And David Brat was able to catch that lightning in a bottle. Ed Gillespie was able to catch the lightning in a bottle.”
The grassroots might be calling a lot more of the shots. But that doesn’t mean Virginia’s center-right can’t keep playing ball.