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?
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