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Virginia's GOP, Crumbling Before Our Eyes

As attention focuses today on Virginia Democrats voting to choose congressional candidates, the commonwealth's Republican Party appears to be fraying--or worse--at both edges.

The razor-thin margin by which former Gov. Jim Gilmore 10 days ago won the GOP nomination to face fellow ex-governor Mark Warner in this fall's U.S. Senate race demonstrated that many in Virginia's Republican party are more focused on proving the purity of their conservative positions than in finding a message that might appeal to independent voters.

Now, what passes for the party's left wing--though its members have decades-long records of clear conservatism in a traditional sense--is in equal disarray, with two of the most powerful Republican legislators in recent history committing the ultimate act of partisan treason, endorsing the Democrat in a crucial Senate race.

The decision by just-retired Sen. John Chichester of Stafford County and Del. Vince Callahan of Fairfax County to embrace Mark Warner--Chichester even filmed a TV ad for the Dem!--is about as loud and clear a cry for help as any Republican can emit against the discord in their own ranks.

You could just about hear the buttons popping off Warner's shirt yesterday as he proudly led his two new Republican friends through their endorsement statements in a conference call with reporters. At this point, it might almost behoove state election officials to spare everyone the cost and just declare Warner the winner by acclamation.

All sorts of ancient intra-party squabbles and rifts play a role in the Chichester and Callahan decisions, but still, even if they are now retired and even if they really didn't like Gilmore, the fact that these two stalwart Republicans would take this big a step away from the top statewide candidate of their own party is a devastating blow to Gilmore, to new party chairman Jeff Frederick (though he wouldn't agree with that) and to voter perceptions of the party.

I asked the two defectors what their endorsement will mean to the party to which they still maintain their allegiance (both are strong supporters of John McCain for president.)

"I'm extremely distressed by the path it's taking," Callahan said of the GOP in Virginia. "It could end up being a minority debating society. We can't be a party about immigrant-bashing or gay-bashing or any other bashing. We should be a party of fiscal responsibility, which is how I got into it."

Chichester recalled that it wasn't long ago that Republicans in Virginia stood for progress, and not just against taxes. The ideas the party promoted were to "stay out of the personal lives of people, keep government small," and pay your own way. "Virginia is not an overtaxed state," he said. "Where the party's going, I make no apologies for supporting Mark Warner in this endeavor."

Callahan said he and his friend, having just left the legislature, "can vote our consciences," but he said there are plenty more Warner Republicans where they came from. "John Chichester and I are just the tip of an iceberg," he said.

"Virginia is a centrist state and Virginia does not tolerate extremes in either party," Chichester added.

But is that really true? The party's new chairman, the young dynamo from Prince William County who ousted John Hager, President Bush's machetunim (you can look it up), at last week's GOP convention, argues that it's time for Virginia Republicans to stop trying to be all things to all people and start standing for clear, strong values on issues such as abortion, guns, gays and immigration.

Gilmore's near-defeat by Del. Bob Marshall, who fits easily into Frederick's vision of the party's future as a clarion moral voice, lends some support to the idea that the harder conservative wing of the party now has the upper hand.

Certainly the enthusiasm for Gilmore's candidacy is lukewarm in the conservative political blogosphere.

But Chichester and Callahan represent a chunk of the party that is anything but a fringe. And Virginia Republicans have to figure out a way to keep both highly antagonistic factions in the fold. "We do need a viable two-party system in Virginia," Chichester says. "'Just say no' is good for DARE, but it's not good for the Republican party. Just to say 'no abortion' and 'no taxes' isn't going to be enough for anything."

Meanwhile, Mark Warner need hardly lift a finger. The Republicans are taking care of Gilmore for him--conservative bloggers feasted this week on the latest blast, a Washington Times piece renewing the allegation that Gilmore is insufficiently anti-abortion because he serves as a director of the company that makes the "Plan B" morning-after pills. Marshall, meanwhile, won't endorse his party's nominee unless Gilmore commits to a total ban on abortion.

Is it too soon for Warner to be measuring for drapes?

By Marc Fisher |  June 10, 2008; 8:08 AM ET
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Comments

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The Virginia GOP, in the form of "leaders" like Marshall, Frederick and Cucinelli, foments bigotry and exclusion. I am all for the type of intelligent policy discussion advocated by Callahan and Chichester, but I don't see that type of vision from the party in the coming years. Is Tim Kaine too liberal? Maybe, but any alternative being put forth by the VGOP is frightening.

I understand the need to have principles, but Marshall putting a gun to Gilmore's head over abortion is a clear indication of the narrow-minded view which has Republicans like me running for the door.

Posted by: More Cowbell | June 10, 2008 8:39 AM

My God, if only all Republicans were as level-headed.

Posted by: Chris | June 10, 2008 9:59 AM

I thought this was settled long ago, but here we still have the same old tired self-righteous bullying.

Old men declaring for themselves the right to decide what women can do with their bodies.

Marshall doesn't like abortions? Easy for him, he never needed one.

Just like all the adulterers in the GOP declaring that gays getting married will destroy the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.

Hypocrites.

Posted by: RAL | June 10, 2008 10:09 AM

I find it rather ironic that if I spend 10 minutes talking with Bob Marshal type conservative, my sentiments move about 5 degrees to the LEFT. Listening to Marc Warner and Marc Fisher type liberals for 5 minutes moves my thinking nearly 30 degrees to the RIGHT. Hearing from go along to get along RINOs like Chichester and Callahan with no guiding principals at all just leaves me disgusted. Be a conservative, be a liberal, you can even be a principled moderate but at least stand for SOMETHING.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | June 10, 2008 10:20 AM

Of course it's disintegrating! The house of cards is falling. Hypocritical, self-righteous, incompetent, bigoted, racist, sexist, corporate..The "Republican Brand", sold to voters by that old GE spokesman Ronnie Raygun and enforced by the Contract ON America of newt Gingrich and his cronies, was a pure flim-flam pyramid scheme. Now the political consumer is out many billions of dollars and left with a broken piece of sh*t. Thanks to GW and his right-wing evangelical ideologues, we may have finally seen "how low they can go" and may be done with the corrupt lot of them!

Posted by: thebob.bob | June 10, 2008 10:26 AM

When our country is lead be Democrats, we all prosper ...remember the 90's? We have witness misery in the past seven years.

God Bless America
Proud African American

Posted by: Mohammed Al Sharif bin Bush | June 10, 2008 10:35 AM

Nice to see Mark and all his buds in the comment line missing the point.

Hey Mark, if Marshall was the exclusionary nut you claim he is, why did he do so well in Northern Virginia - including Fairfax County?

Once again, you geniuses are learning the wrong lessons. Social issues only got Marshall and Frederick halfway there. It was the egregious HB3202 that brought Marshall to the cusp of victory and Frederick to a landslide win.

I'm not surprised the Chichester (who wanted more tax hikes than 3202) and Callahan (who backed 3202) didn't see this. I am surprised that Mark missed it after NoVa sent Jay O'Brien and Jeannemarie Devolites-Davis packing while re-electing Marshall and Frederick (both opposed 3202) to larger majorities.

Posted by: D.J. McGuire | June 10, 2008 10:36 AM

My Conservative principles are fiscal responsibility, less intrusive and smaller government, and promoting liberty at home and abroad (without engaging in elective wars).

I'm sick of the "culture war", the anti-immigrant racists, the churchy busy bodies, and the K Street crony capitalism of the GOP. Tax cuts for the rich while spending more is not my idea of conservatism. It's worse foolishness than anything the liberals could ever conceive.

I'm voting for Obama, with both the hope that he'll be more fiscally conservative than John McCain and to send a message to the GOP. Thank goodness I don't have to choose between Hillary and McCain.

Posted by: Marcos El Malo | June 10, 2008 11:00 AM

DJ...do you think that Marshall would have done so well if this had been a statewide election and not the RPV convention which tends to bring out the more conservative and activist members of the party? I believe that Tom Davis would have been a worthy opponent to Mark Warner in the general election, but the only way that he had a chance to be on the ballot is if the RPV used a primary. The convention is over-represented by the xenophobic, ultra-conservative wing of the party and not by the majority of Republicans in the commonwealth.

Posted by: More Cowbell | June 10, 2008 11:29 AM

I believe to be candidate for the Republican party you have to home school your spawn!! I sure hope in 2009 Cucunelli is either running for state office or the dems put up a real candidate to defeat him. He does not represent his district. He represents the VA Republican party!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 10, 2008 11:33 AM

"why did he do so well in Northern Virginia - including Fairfax County?"

that's sort of misleading, don't you think?

Marshall didn't do well "in Northern Virginia," he did well among uber-conservatives from Northern Virginia, who represent a small and shrinking subset of NoVa voters.

Further, Marshall and Frederick represent outlying districts, which is where the GOP is being pushed in NoVa. Cuccinelli barely won against a terrible Dem opponent.

I see nothing in any of this to indicate anything but a crushing of the GOP in vote-rich NoVa this November.

Posted by: Spectator2 | June 10, 2008 12:11 PM

Yeah, let's elect Dems like Warner, who didn't see a need for "an increase in taxes at this time" to gull the voters and then promptly campaigned for and ushered in a huge tax increase. or Tim Kaine, who opposes the death penalty "personally" but vowed to "uphold the law" then seeks any way out to avoid doing so, like a trapped weasel. At least the Repubs don't say one thing to get elected and then do another. The only problem with Gilmore in cutting the personal property tax is commiting to continue to give state money to the counties; he should have eliminated both.

Posted by: Stick | June 10, 2008 12:15 PM

Yeah, let's elect Dems like Warner, who didn't see a need for "an increase in taxes at this time" to gull the voters and then promptly campaigned for and ushered in a huge tax increase. Or Tim Kaine, who opposes the death penalty "personally" but vowed to "uphold the law", then seeks any way out to avoid doing so, like a trapped weasel. At least the Repubs don't say one thing to get elected and then do another. The only problem with Gilmore in cutting the personal property tax was commiting to continue to give state money to the counties; he should have eliminated both the tax and the commitment..

Posted by: Stick | June 10, 2008 12:18 PM

Yeah, let's elect Dems like Warner, who didn't see a need for "an increase in taxes at this time" to gull the voters and then promptly campaigned for and ushered in a huge tax increase. Or Tim Kaine, who opposes the death penalty "personally" but vowed to "uphold the law", then seeks any way out to avoid doing so, like a trapped weasel. At least the Repubs don't say one thing to get elected and then do another. The only problem with Gilmore in cutting the personal property tax was commiting to continue to give state money to the counties; he should have eliminated both the tax and the commitment..

Posted by: Stick | June 10, 2008 12:20 PM

Republicans are Chimps

Posted by: Anonymous | June 10, 2008 4:55 PM

Moderates and conservatives within the GOP need to live together or die separately. They agree on quite a few issues, maybe even a majority. But it is horrible when "you lose" to walk away and help the other side. If moderates did not want Gilmore for the Senate then they could have run a candidate (Davis thought about it but balked). They say they want McCain and Warner... but if Warner wins he will not be a McCain backer. He will, for example, support another term for Reid as Majority Leader. He will, if Obama wins, eventually support his very liberal agenda.

Posted by: Bill | June 10, 2008 6:15 PM

Notice that it is older Republicans who are trashing the conservatives in the Republican Party. As southern conservatives have migrated to the Republican Party over the last thirty years, it is only normal that older moderate Republicans, who no longer have much say in the Republican Party, feel at home with the pragmatic, pro-business Democrats like Bill Clinton and Mark Warner. Thus retired Vince Callahan and retired John Chichester(who started as a Byrd Democrat) get their chance to give aid and comfort to Democrat Mark Warner.

Much of the fight between the Republicans and the moderate Republican/Democrat coalition is centered on paying for roads in Virginia's suburban sprawl districts. Yet, without limits on developers, more roadbuilding is a waste of time and money. The Democrats and moderate Republicans wish to stupidly waste money. The more conservative Republicans, in their own stupidity, don't want to rein in the developers who act as an anti-conservative force in Virginia. A plague on both their houses.

Funny, after two years of a President Obama, it can be reckoned that the fortunes of the Republican Party, in Virginia and in the rest of the nation, will brighten considerably and Marc Fisher will be crying in his chardonnay.

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