Circular Firing Squad?

Screen shot from Facebook video of the February 23 Virginia Republican Party State Central Committee meeting.

The inner workings and various factions that make up Virginia’s Republican Party fascinate me, and I’ve been attending Tea Party meetings and following the debate between these factions pretty much since I moved to Hanover County in 2008. The short non-academic version is that a very active and motivated base has worked to take over the Virginia GOP for more than a decade. This base very much wants to enforce a kind of ideological purity that focuses far more on cultural issues than policy.

This intra-Party insurgency initially manifested itself in the capture of local Virginia GOP units by Tea Party activists after Barack Obama won the Presidency. Ideologically, this group is to the right of what I call “Chamber of Commerce” Republicans (defined as conservatives who want small government but want it to actually work). Think of this as the “conservatives lose elections because they’re not conservative enough” crowd.

They successfully won the 7th District Congressional nomination for Dave Brat over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014 because the very conservative Cantor was not conservative enough to suit them – these activists ousted a very powerful Congressman for ideological reasons. Brat went on to win the seat and served two terms before Abigail Spanberger won the seat in 2018. She held it in 2020, but narrowly.

In 2019, this same group more or less excommunicated Chris Peace from the Virginia GOP for the sin of supporting Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Delegate Peace may have seen reports like this one showing that expansion would be very likely to help his constituents. Whether it would measurably improve the quality of life in the 97th District – a very rural district – made no difference. Tea Party and Trump activists manipulated the nomination process in a very contentious series of meetings to set the conditions for Scott Wyatt to displace Peace and win the very conservative district.

The insurgency continued as it shifted from a general anti-tax Tea Party movement to a movement of Trump supporters that some might characterize as a cult.

In 2020, incumbent Congressman Denver Riggleman annoyed the right wing of the Virginia GOP by officiating a wedding between two staffers who helped him win the seat in a District where the outcome is not a given. Activists used control of the 5th Congressional District nominating committee to force a drive-through “convention” held at Liberty University. This convention, held in Bob Good‘s back yard, severely limited participation of Virginia Republicans in the process. Once again, right-wing activists took control of the Republican Party of Virginia’s process to oust a solid conservative over a single ideological disagreement.

They’re at it again, this time in an effort to make Amanda Chase the GOP nominee for Governor this year. The same people who reject using primaries over concerns that Democrats will cross over and vote for the candidate they believe the Democratic nominee can most easily defeat are now fighting for just that nomination method because they think Chase – who self-describes as “Trump in heels” – has a better chance to win. This flips the script in a way – the extremist candidate usually wants the smallest nominating cohort possible so they can flood the meeting with activist supporters. This time they say they fear that the “establishment” GOP will rig the vote at a convention. Whether she can win the general election seems to matter less to them.

Things came to sort of a head on Tuesday night, when the Republican Party of Virginia’s State Central Committee (SCC) held a meeting to finalize the Party’s nomination process for statewide candidates. This is something like the fourth meeting held to discuss this question, not counting the one SCC Chair Rich Anderson postponed to make sure it would not be possible to agree on a process before the deadline to let the State Board of Elections know that the GOP wanted a primary.

I watched this meeting live on Facebook, and you can watch the archived video on the RPV Facebook page. It’s long – more than three hours – and contentious at times. These people do not like each other. According to John Massoud, in fact, some in the pro-primary (which amounts to pro Chase) faction used cyberbullying and made death threats against Members who supported a nominating convention.

In the end, the SCC voted to hold a convention, and because of Covid-19 restrictions would hold that convention in parking lots at Liberty University (sound familiar?). Delegates from local GOP units would drive to Lynchburg, listen to speeches and such over the radios in their cars, and vote for the nominees using rank choice voting. The problem with this plan is that Party rules permit only an assembled convention held indoors, and the Chase faction refuses to give the SCC the supermajority vote needed to change these rules.

But wait! There’s more! If the SCC cannot amend its rules to hold the Parking Lot Convention, and Covid restrictions prohibit an indoor assembled convention, the SCC itself would select the nominees. Could this cause Chase to run as an independent?

And then the kicker: pretty soon after the SCC decided to hold its convention in Liberty University parking lots, the University issued a statement saying that it had not agreed to allow this. And in any event renting the LU space would cost a good bit of money which the Virginia Republican Party does not have. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the RPV has a little over $1500 in the bank. Not enough.

This is not a political party prepared to win statewide elections. In some ways it’s clear that they don’t even care – winning the internal ideological battle seems to matter more. Or maybe they think nominating Amanda Chase will make the liberals cry – and for them that’s all the win they need.

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