You would think, following their spectacular showing in the 2014 midterm elections, that Virginia’s Republicans would be in a joyful, backslapping mood, and ready to present a unified front going into the November elections, when all 100 House of Delegates and 40 Virginia Senate seats will be up for grabs. And indeed, the recent conclusion of the Republican-controlled General Assembly’s 2015 session (which even Governor Terry McAuliffe labeled a “lovefest”) was accompanied by much smug self-congratulation on the parts of Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment and House Speaker Bill Howell.
And yet, as the lawmakers left Richmond to start campaigning in earnest, there was ample evidence that all is not perfect in the land of elephants. One of the most visible signs of distress came from Speaker Howell, who—facing a credible primary challenge for the first time in almost 30 years—launched a warm-and-fuzzy website featuring dozens of photogenic voters proclaiming that “We Know Bill.” This early salvo against his opponent, former Stafford County Board of Supervisors chairperson and living anime figure Susan Stimpson, was telling for a number of reasons. Firstly, it showed that Howell was taking the primary challenge very seriously. Secondly, it demonstrated that Howell’s team had studied the unexpected defeat of U.S. Representative Eric Cantor by Tea Party firebrand David Brat very closely. Whereas Cantor had come out punching early, carpeting the airwaves with anti-Brat ads, Howell is taking great pains to burnish his own image, and show that—unlike the out-of-touch, overly ambitious Cantor—he actually cares about his constituents.
Another sign of trouble is the ongoing turmoil at the cash-strapped Republican Party of Virginia (RPV), which recently saw the exit of executive director Shaun Kenney after less than a year on the job. Current RPV chairman John Whitbeck, a Loudoun County lawyer, campaigned on a promise to unite the business and Tea Party wings of the party, but he has thus far managed to both infuriate Tea Party darling Stimpson by distributing glossy brochures touting Howell, and unnerve establishment Republicans by indicating that he prefers nominating conventions over state-run primaries. (Caucuses and conventions invariably favor very conservative or liberal candidates, as only party die-hards tend to show up and vote.)
Compounding the GOP’s woes is a recent string of unforced errors that call into question the party’s basic competence. The first happened in Prince William County, where the local party committee actually missed the deadline to request a primary, and as a result five members of the Board of County Supervisors—including Chairman Corey Stewart—may have to face opponents in a party caucus. An additional embarrassment came when a recent high-profile party fundraiser had to be scuttled at the last minute because the featured speaker—South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy, who chairs a House committee tasked with investigating the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya—canceled his appearance upon learning that the event had been named “Beyond Benghazi.”
It was a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the far-right hand was doing, and Salem-based Representative Morgan Griffith, who had invited Gowdy in the first place, was obviously displeased with the screw-up. “Someone, somewhere thought that would be clever. They never checked with us,” he told The Washington Post. “Clearly, you can’t raise money off Benghazi.”
In the long run, of course, all of this intra-party squabbling might not matter, and Republicans will emerge from this year’s election with majorities intact. But it’s very difficult to be effective when your house is divided—and as of now, Virginia’s GOP appears to have a very shaky foundation indeed.
House Speaker Bill Howell is taking campaign clues from Eric Cantor’s surprise loss.
Another sign of trouble is the ongoing turmoil at the cash-strapped Republican Party of Virginia, which recently saw the exit of executive director Shaun Kenney after less than a year on the job.