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Virginia Notebook: Jeff Frederick vs. McCain Camp

Tim Craig

As Virginia Republicans continue to assess their Nov. 4 losses and plot their comeback in time for the 2009 state races, one big obstacle hangs over them: coordination.

The 2008 presidential and congressional races exposed a huge discrepancy in how the Democrats worked with other Democrats compared with how Republicans worked together.

Although they experienced a few bumps when President-elect Barack Obama's campaign came to Virginia for the general election, state Democrats were a well-oiled political machine that produced an impressive result on Election Day.

Sen.-elect Mark R. Warner (D) won his race with more votes than any other statewide politician in history. Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee in 44 years to carry Virginia, winning a higher percentage of the vote in Virginia then he did in the traditional battleground states of Ohio and Florida.

And Democrats picked up as many as three House seats in Virginia, one of the best showings for Democratic congressional challengers in the country.

But while the Virginia Democratic Party emerges from the elections stronger than it has been in decades, Virginia GOP leaders are dogged by finger-pointing and disorganization as they prepare for the 2009 races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the state House of Delegates.

On the day after the election, Virginia Republican Party Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick blamed the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the party's poor showing in the state on Election Day.

"What happened had nothing to do with the Republican Party of Virginia," said Frederick, noting that McCain also lost Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. "It had everything to do with the candidate and campaign that was run. ..... We did our best to communicate with the McCain campaign and give them our advice, but they chose not to take it."

McCain campaign officials, who declined to be identified because they are not authorized to speak for the senator, said they were left with no choice but to marginalize Frederick and the state party.

A few weeks after Frederick unseated former lieutenant governor John H. Hager as state GOP chairman, advisers for the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee traveled to Virginia to meet with Frederick and other state party officials.

The goal of the meeting, officials said, was to begin preparing a strategy similar to the Democrats', in which national money flowed to the state party in a coordinated effort to strengthen the party up and down the ballot.

The meeting quickly broke down when Frederick demanded control over how the national money was spent, McCain advisers and legislative sources said.

"We had a very tenuous relationship with Frederick to start off," said one McCain adviser. "He wanted the campaign to donate money to the state party to pay bills. ..... The things he wanted to do with the money were very amateurish and not part of the national victory structure."

As a result, the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee largely shut out Frederick. Instead of having the coordinated operation run through the state party, the salaries of McCain staff members and field efforts were mostly funded directly from the RNC, meaning they did little to help GOP candidates in other races.

Frederick denied that he asked for control over the money, but he said he scrutinized how the campaign planned to spend its resources in Virginia.

"They talked about hiring field staff, and I said, 'We are going to hire field staff, too, so maybe we can combine the resources,'." Frederick said. "But they insisted on a one-size-fits-all plan."

Frederick said he is convinced that McCain campaign officials did not understand what they needed to do to win Virginia. Frederick noted that party chairmen in other states also complained about their interaction with the campaign. "These guys were not team players," he said.

As the political season heated up in the fall, about a half-dozen GOP campaigns were operating in Virginia largely independently of one another.

McCain and the RNC ran their operation out of Northern Virginia. Republican Senate candidate James S. Gilmore III had his own headquarters. And various congressional candidates had their own operations. Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who quietly supported Hager over Frederick as party chairman, also was developing his own campaign with an eye toward his run for governor next year.

The different campaigns, party leaders said, often stumbled over each other to fend off Democrats, who had a united message and strategy.

Gilmore, for example, infuriated some McCain advisers when he printed up McCain-Gilmore signs without getting approval from the presidential campaign. Last month, Frederick partnered with Gilmore to air a television ad that sought to tie the former governor to McCain. Some GOP strategists worried that, in an effort to boost Gilmore, Frederick was undermining McCain, because Gilmore was unpopular in many parts of the state.

In mid-October, the tension between the state party and the McCain campaign boiled over after Frederick compared Obama to Osama bin Laden.

"It was just constant drama that surrounded Frederick, and it is quite frankly something the GOP candidates will have to deal with next year," the McCain adviser said.

Coordinating campaigns around a common goal is rarely easy. And Democrats faced a few hurdles as well.

In mid-summer, some Virginia Democrats were bewildered when the Obama campaign insisted on opening offices across the state, even though Warner and the state party were opening their own. And as the campaign progressed, some Virginia Democrats said that the Obama campaign, which was being run by non-Virginians, was too quick in dismissing suggestions from in-state party activists.

"We had to work out the role that each of us were going to play this year, sort of working out the wrinkles," said Levar Stoney, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party.

But any tension among Democratic campaigns was relatively short-lived, and the final coordinated effort produced clear dividends when it came to getting voters to support the entire ticket.

Obama narrowly won the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Virginia Beach and other parts of Hampton Roads, with 142,257 votes. Most of those Obama voters then supported Democrat Glenn Nye over Rep. Thelma Drake (R). In unseating Drake, Nye drew 141,857 votes, almost identical to Obama's showing in the district.

In the 5th District, which stretches from Charlottesville to Danville, Obama racked up 157,367 votes. In his successful campaign to unseat Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R) in that district, Democrat Tom Perriello received 158,712 votes.

Some Republicans have privately suggested that Frederick be replaced as chairman so McDonnell can install an ally. But it's very difficult to oust a state GOP chairman, and McDonnell doesn't want to get bogged down in an intraparty battle over the issue.

"I feel like I am the leader of the party now," said McDonnell, whose incoming political director, Mike Reynold, headed up McCain's Virginia campaign. "Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling and I are the messengers of the Republican Party of Virginia ..... and working together with the other key leaders of the House, the Senate, the party and the Congress, we are going to reestablish the Republican brand and message for next year."

Frederick, however, continues to see a big role for himself next year.

"I ran for chairman to rebuild this party, and that was put on hold until today," Frederick said the day after the election. "Now, I have the opportunity to do that."

By Tim Craig  |  November 19, 2008; 11:48 AM ET
Categories:  Tim Craig  
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