Virginia Notebook: GOP Fights Over Its 'Roots'
Even by Virginia Republican standards, the battle over whether Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (Prince William) should be replaced as state party chairman is divisive and brutal, and the wounds it creates could have far-reaching consequences for the GOP in an election year.
Both sides in the dispute have crafted a strategy that revolves around the phrase "grass roots." Unfortunately for Virginia Republicans, there appears to be a huge disconnect over who makes up the grass roots.
And if a party doesn't know who its most loyal supporters are, can it really rebound from a string of election defeats? Or is this a case in which most party leaders know full well who their most loyal supporters are, but they don't like what they see?
When a majority of the Republican State Central Committee announced plans to try to remove Frederick as chairman two weeks ago, GOP gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell endorsed the move by saying the "grass roots" of the party want Frederick gone.
A few days later, the Republican leadership in the state Senate also called for Frederick's ouster, saying he had lost the confidence of the "grass roots."
On Friday, the five Republican U.S. representatives from Virginia called on Frederick to resign, saying "it is the sentiment of the grass-roots membership of the party to move in another direction."
In mounting his defense to the criticism that he mismanaged the party and is incompetent, Frederick used the same term.
"I make no apologies for standing against these efforts to remove me or the changes I've made within our party to give greater authority and input to the grass roots," Frederick wrote in a letter to GOP activists this week.
A year ago, Frederick did create a grass-roots uprising to topple former lieutenant governor John H. Hager, a moderate, as chairman of the state party.
After a three-month campaign, Frederick mobilized several thousand conservative GOP
activists to show up at the convention to support him for a four-year term as chairman.
Many GOP leaders now say Frederick has been a failure. In an effort to remove him before his term ends, they have made 10 allegations against him centering on his management style and whether he diverted party business to a company he owns.
But much of the angst over Frederick revolves around his personality, and his having become an easy target for Democrats.
"Its an abysmal situation," said Mike Wade, chairman of the 3rd Congressional District Republican Committee.
It would be an oversimplification to call efforts to oust Frederick a battle between the party's conservatives and moderates.
But it is shaping up to be a contest between pragmatic conservatives who want to reach out to moderates and those who want to stick with their core beliefs on social issues.
To be successful, leading Virginia Republicans such as Rep. Eric I. Cantor have said, the state party needs to start reaching moderate suburban Republicans as well as the state's business community, two constituencies that have shown a surprising openness to Democratic candidates in recent years.
Getting rid of Frederick, some Republican leaders say, will send a signal to the those groups that the Virginia GOP is interested in having them in the fold.
The problem for Republicans is that moderates and business leaders no longer form the backbone of the state GOP.
The Virginia GOP now relies on social conservatives -- the same voters who make moderate suburbanites and business leaders uncomfortable -- to do the party's grunt work. And many of those activists have yet to fully embrace the need for Frederick to be removed.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook and my e-mail has been flooded with folks out there in the hinterlands scratching their heads saying, 'What is the deal? ..... Why are we doing a mini coup?'," said Michael Giere, a GOP committeeman from Falls Church who supports Frederick.
Indeed, the strategy being employed by the state central committee to remove Frederick raises questions about which side really has the support of grass-roots Republicans.
If party leaders were confident in their case against Frederick, they could have proposed removing him at the convention in late May, by the same delegates who elected him. Why didn't they? Probably because Frederick, a prolific campaigner, would have a good shot at surviving an up-or-down vote at a convention packed with die-hard activists.
Frederick predicts that the party will suffer if he is removed by anyone other than the delegates who elected him.
"If a handful of party insiders can undo the decisive election results of a grass-roots convention of thousands, then the heart of our party in the grass roots will wonder, 'Why bother?,'." Frederick said. "We shouldn't be surprised when they don't show up" to vote or volunteer.
Republicans have only to look back to last year to realize the peril they face in navigating this controversy.
In the summer, Republican leaders were talking openly that they didn't have volunteers willing to work for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), even though he was leading Barack Obama in the presidential race in some Virginia polls at the time.
Then McCain tapped conservative Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and local GOP committees reported being overwhelmed with social conservatives eager to volunteer to support the ticket.
Despite the images of an enthusiastic Republican busily working at local GOP headquarters, the electorate in more moderate parts of the state was rapidly shifting away from McCain because of his selection of Palin. In late October, 62.percent of Northern Virginia voters had a negative view of Palin, according to a Washington Post poll.
"They need to continue to welcome more moderate people into the party," said former Republican U.S. representative Tom Davis. "They have to understand you have to build coalitions ..... You can't be a private club with an admissions test to get in."
Frederick supporters want to take the opposite approach, arguing that the GOP will win statewide races again if its candidates proudly display their conservative views on social issues.
Patrick M. McSweeney, the former chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, says that former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) lost the 2005 governor's race because he refused to take a strong position against abortion. McSweeney said McDonnell appears headed for a similar fate.
"His consultants told him, 'You've got to moderate,' and that is what this fight over Frederick is about," he said. "Well, I have heard this tune since 1968, and the only time we as a party have won is when we don't compromise."
John Taylor, president of Tertium Quids, a conservative think tank, sees little hope that the various GOP factions will come together soon.
"I don't think it is a party anymore. You've got the [moderate wing] that includes a lot of people in Northern Virginia, and you've got the conservative grass roots, who are satisfied with the Republican brand, " Taylor said. "These two groups will continue to try to eliminate each other until one side drives the other out of the party."
But Hager, who is supporting efforts to oust Frederick, remains optimistic about the fate of the Virginia GOP.
"It's kind of like the economy," Hager said. "No one knows when it will come back, but it will come back."
March 18, 2009; 2:16 PM ET
Categories: 2009 Attorney General's Race , 2009 Governor's Race , Election 2009 , Eric Cantor , John McCain , Robert F. McDonnell , Sarah Palin , Thomas M. Davis III , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook
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