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The Backbone Of The Republican Party In Virginia

Some time back Shaun Kenney published a PDF document [1] that essentially addressed all that Shaun believes is wrong with the Republican Party in Virginia. Like most of you, I’ve looked through his recommendations and absorbed a few. Some of Shaun’s ideas are great and long overdue.

Most of Shaun’s paper is devoted to suggestions for the Republican Party of Virginia itself and the State Central Committee.

We’ll look at some of Shaun’s recommendations to the units later, but first I want to add a couple of suggestions for the top levels of the party, beginning with the SCC.

I call SCC the backbone because it should be the connection between the feet and legs that do the work on the ground in the various unit committees and the brain trust at RPV and I say should because it doesn’t always seem to make the connection. In addition to Shaun’s recommendations to these two entities, I believe there are a couple of changes that need to be looked at by the State Central Committee before diving into Shaun’s weightier suggestions.

Make The State Central Committee More Geographically Diverse

Quick, name your district’s three, (or four, or five), SCC members. Unless you’re actually on the State Central Committee, or a district chairman you probably can’t do it. OK, just tell me how many SCC members your district is allocated. Can’t do that off the top of your head, huh? Don’t feel bad, I can’t either without looking it up. When was the last time your district’s SCC members attended your unit meeting? Chances are, unless you live in NOVA or Hampton Roads, your “local” SCC representative may not be very local. You may or may not have met during a district Convention. I’m in the 9th district portion consisting of Henry County, but if I’m not mistaken, one 6th district SCC member lives closer to me than any 5th or 9th district member.

We need a more geographically diverse representation on the State Central Committee. The current method certainly seems fine on its surface but it fails in execution. As the party’s backbone, the SCC should be your unit’s representation or liaison with RPV. It doesn’t seem to work quite that way now. As Shaun says, “Shake it up!” Let’s make the SCC more representative of Virginia, and at the same time more responsive to local units. If that’s not the purpose of the SCC, why bother with a vote at the district convention? Somebody just appoint ’em and get it over with.
The 5th CD, for example, [at the time of this writing] has three of its seats occupied by folks who live within a few miles of each other and many miles from most 5th district voters. The 9th CD, being more sparsely populated and considerably larger, potentially puts way too many units and their grassroots members even further from their SCC representatives.

The Democrats, on the other hand, don’t seem to do any better. They go to the opposite extreme, offering each congressional district 20, (yes, 20), seats, plus 4 “bonus” seats. The execution of their plan must be a nightmare for their district chairmen when you add in an additional requirement that these 24 seats be “equally divided” between men and women. (Maybe they do just appoint ’em and get it over with.) Then you add in the other members provided for in the plan, and the Democratic State Central Committee balloons into a number that could potentially exceed 300 seats.

While it does solve the problem I’ve described, I’m sure we do not want to go there.

Currently the Republican State Party Plan assigns three seats, plus two bonus positions, to each congressional district for a possible total of 55 elected representatives to go along with the 34 otherwise provided for in the Plan. That is a simple plan that provides for a maximum of 89 seats.

A Better Plan

A plan that would guarantee a more geographically diverse SCC would, by necessity, increase the total membership of the SCC, but not in a way that would make it as unwieldy as the guys across the street.

Instead of opening three seats to each congressional district, let’s limit that to one per CD, plus the two bonus seats now in effect. Then allocate each Virginia Senate district one seat for a possible SCC population of 73 plus those 34 provided for in the plan, or a maximum of 107. Allocating a seat to each House of Delegates district, instead of senate districts, would mean much more diversity, but at the expense of a SCC that is probably too large, (167), though still well below the size of that room across the street.

There are several advantages to such a plan.

First, it would make the SCC more representative of the Commonwealth by more evenly spreading its membership throughout the state.

Second, adding 40 more elected representatives would bring the SCC closer to each individual unit, and thus the grassroots.

And finally, at least one of your district’s representatives on the SCC would be more likely to be someone you know well. They would surely be local enough to know what’s actually happening on the ground in your area.

I know this raises some questions. Let’s look at them.

What about a senate district that overlaps two or more congressional districts?

That’s only a problem if you’re still thinking in terms of the current plan. If you simply treat them as the separate seats they are and consider the congressional district representatives as “At Large” congressional district members, regardless of which senate district they live in, the “problem” disappears.

Who votes for and elects that SCC member from a divided senate district?

That’s a good question, but it need not be an insurmountable problem. I’ve described the role of the SCC as your unit’s representation to RPV, so the units represented should be the deciding factor. Since I’m more familiar with this area we’ll use it as our example. The 20th senate district straddles the 9th and 5th congressional districts in the western end of Henry County [at the time of this writing]. This senate district serves two units in Henry County located mostly in the 5th district and six units located wholly within the 9th district. The obvious and simple solution is to elect the 20th senate district representative at the 9th district convention, even if the candidate for the 20th district seat actually lives in the 5th. The CD holding more units within a senate district would elect the representative for that senate district. The possibility exists that a split senate district would represent an equal number of units in adjacent congressional districts, but I’m not aware of any that currently do. The Solomonic solution to that would be for the two district chairmen involved to share by alternating which district holds the election. Or decide based on Republican votes in the previous presidential election. Or place it in the portion of the senate district with more registered voters. Or base it upon the district with the higher percentage of Republican votes in the most recent gubernatorial election. The point is, it really makes no difference and there can be many fair solutions.

A Look At How We Elect Our State Chairman

The SCC should also take a look at how we currently elect our State Chairman. With our current plan, a new chairman faces two major tasks right out of the box. He has to dive straight into a presidential election, and begin immediately working with a Presidential campaign team that may have been a couple of years in the making. He must immediately begin planning, or take over planning, for Virginia’s role in the National Convention. He must accomplish all this while making a smooth transition from the previous administration. Then add in whatever grand plans he may have for the Party.

Even a superman needs more time to settle into his role before facing such a monumental task. I’m not saying that was what led to the recent Frederick affair, but it sure didn’t help and may well have been a factor.

Here the Democrats come closer to getting it right, but they still hobble a new chairman unnecessarily by selecting him in Virginia’s Gubernatorial year. We all know Virginia is unique in that there is an election of some sort going on pretty much all the time, so there’s no true off-year during which a new chairman can get comfortable in his skin and create his team.

The closest we come to such circumstances is the odd-numbered, non-gubernatorial election year. There are elections that year, of course, but they are more local in nature with only state senate races and local constitutional offices to worry about. That year alone, out of each four year cycle, would be the least demanding on a new chairman and give him a year to get his agenda settled. We need to make whatever adjustments are necessary to begin electing our chairman during that odd-numbered, off-year cycle. Right now, several years out from the next presidential election is the time to do so.

Now We Turn To Shaun’s Advice To Unit Committees

Shaun also offers several suggestions to the unit committees, some of which I recommend as well. I do have some comments and advice of my own, of course.

All unit committees must radically commit themselves to new media. That means a community blog focusing on issues pertinent to the locality in which they live, open to all the members of the committee (Democrats tend to use SoapBlox as their platform of choice; Drupal, Joomla, or even WordPress is suitable).

Chairman is elected as the lead community organizer. As a first among equals, the chairman co-ordinates as a garden-variety chairman would.

All magisterial districts and precincts are each given a chairman. These individuals form the Executive Committee of any given unit committee, and targets the specific race (supervisor, city council, school board) under their jurisdiction.

In order to implement Shaun’s suggestions here, your unit will most likely need to recruit more members first. There’s little point in having a precinct 3 chairman if she’s the only member in your unit living in precinct 3. To that end, the second part can be a great recruiting tool. People like to be needed and they like to feel that their involvement actually does something. Besides, as any Burger King manager will tell you, a title, especially to someone in an otherwise thankless job, does massage one’s ego just a bit and will often mean the difference between a glowing performance and mediocre results.

The idea of “district and precinct chairman” should be expanded to advocacy groups as well. This means anything from minority outreach to youth advocacy, from Republican Womens’ units to Young Republicans, all the way down to Republican Liberty Caucus organizations or Taxpayer Alliances within a locality. Every [conservative] group with a “tribe” should have a seat at the table. (I added the bracketed “conservative”)

This suggestion follows quite nicely, and meshes well with the previous. You want to recruit active, involved members, and these people have already shown their willingness to work for our causes.

Shaun’s Toughest Advice

After a couple more organizational suggestions, Shaun finishes his list with some tough love;

“Surrender the message control. This is probably the most difficult thing for unit committees to learn, but increasing participation means a decrease in message control. Jefferson’s advice still rings true. “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it” is wonderfully appropriate advice. After all, are we the party of free minds, free markets, and a free society – or are we not? It is far better to be bold (fortuna audaces juvat?) than it is to remain safe… and losing.”

Shaun’s right. This one will be the most difficult, but only for some units. It will be especially difficult for those units where the chair has held his office for too long. He has become accustomed to being the only voice of Republicans in his county, and he ain’t gonna be happy to change that. He will remain, of course, the “official” voice of the party, but he needs to realize that communication lines are much more open than ever before. People have opinions and they will voice them.

Our party cannot be seen as trying to censor or censure other voices. I’ve personally felt the sting of this one when I was publicly scolded for announcing a challenger to Ward Armstrong on my website. Even though I was very careful not to reveal the potential candidate’s name, or even name the Republican Party. I apparently stepped on a tender ego and was told, in an open meeting, that releasing information of that sort was the sole domain of the unit chairman.

Uh, I’m sorry, but not even my employer tells me what I can or cannot write on a website I personally own and operate. I was subsequently forced out of the unit by means that did not follow the Party Plan.

Besides, long tenured unit chairmen already know that increasing participation could mean a decrease in message control. Therefore, too often it seems no real effort is directed toward growing the active members of the unit beyond a small core of supporters loyal to the chairman. Sadly, I believe that to be a primary factor in many small and ineffective unit committees. Put your efforts into building an effective unit, and you won’t have to put your efforts into “playing” your next mass meeting or worrying about re-election.

Increase Unit Size And Open Unit Communication To Increase Effectiveness

Former Democrat Delegate Barnie Day is fond of saying that each candidate goes into an election with 30% of the vote in his pocket. It’s there, no need to worry about it. He’s right, of course. But there are implications in that statement that can and should be applied at the unit level. It also means that 30% of your unit’s population are potential new unit committee members.

No, I’m not suggesting that you will get them all, of course. Or even half. Most people are not “joiners” and more still just don’t follow politics very closely at all. But out of that 30% there are maybe 10% who do follow Virginia’s political scene. These are the people the other portion turn to when they have questions. People like you.

But forget 10%. Let’s aim much lower and look at only 1%. Henry County, for example, has a population of around 55,000. 30% of that is 16,500. That equals 16 thousand people who think like we think. 16 thousand people who believe pretty much what we believe. If we only reach 1% of those that agree with us we would have 165 hard working activists here in Henry County. 165? Heh. We do good to get 16 to show up for a meeting. I wonder if any unit in Virginia has reached this simple 1% potential. I do strongly believe it should be considered an achievable, realistic goal.

I’ve attended quite a few unit committee meetings, both here in Virginia and in Florida. I’ve also attended Primitive Baptist funerals. Take my word for it the funerals are more festive; And usually more informative.

Make Your Committee More Attractive To Young Activists

Shaun addresses this problem with;

Unit committees are old school. If you’re in my age bracket, they are piloted by “old people” (anyone over 40, sadly) who don’t understand new media, don’t interact on social media sites, have no idea how to text message, don’t speak to their issues (property taxes? social security? Medicare? who cares when most 18-35 year olds rent, and we all know these programs are failing and won’t be there for our generation –though we will most certainly have to pay for it…), and frankly treat these young new recruits as backbenchers – though they probably have more experience mobilizing people for a Friday night on the town than most committee members could organize on Election Day.

“Sadly, here is where the Democrats beat us silly. They know how to mobilize their younger recruits and make them effective. It does not have to be that way. Recent polls and research shows that young people are more conservative than ever, we simply are not making good use of those conservative young people.

Potential younger recruits do not sit at home every evening watching Bill O’Reilly and waiting for the phone to ring. (If they even have one of those old-fashioned phones that never leaves the house.) They are communicating with each other via the Internet in one manner or another whether they are at home or out on the town. [As a former high school teacher, I can attest to the fact that they will try to use the Internet to communicate even during class]. Learn to make good use of their constant desire for communication. Especially electronic communication.

Get comfortable with the idea of actively and effectively using the Internet and its integration with cell phone technology and you’ll become more comfortable with those younger members. And they’ll become more comfortable with you. Win/Win.

That brings up my next issue.

Make Your Committee Meetings More Attractive To All Members

Last year [2008?]we wrapped up the LG, AG, RPV Challenge which dared each unit to double their membership. Many units met that challenge and should be congratulated.

Now, a couple of questions. How many of those new members liked what they found enough to continue attending meetings? How many are working right now, knocking doors and making phone calls and planning events for our latest candidates? If you answered those questions positively, great! You’re obviously doing something right.

If you answered negatively, or hung your head, too ashamed to answer, read on. Simply increasing the membership roll, while adding only a few, if any, active members, was a waste of time, effort, and the LG, AG, and RPV’s money.

Take a truly objective look at your typical unit meeting. Is it something your neighbors and co-workers would enjoy attending? Most likely, it’s not. It’s probably a dull, boring gathering in an institutional setting, usually a courthouse or city hall. That’s typical. It’s also part of what Shaun calls “old school.”

Some of you are Rotarians or Jaycees. Some are Ruritans or Lions or Civitans. Do those groups have boring, dry, dull meetings? Chances are they don’t if the club or organization is thriving. Your unit committee members would appreciate the same type of meeting and there’s no real reason you can’t give it to them. Other than the tired refrain, “Well, we’ve always held our meetings here at the courthouse”, there’s no excuse.

You say you need a public place? Restaurants are public places. Sure, the courthouse is free, but so is the back room at Ryan’s. You will find the same offer from many others, especially independent restaurants in your area. They would love the added business, and as Republicans we do claim to be pro-business, right? Very few restaurants will even require each attendee to place an order. Even if it costs a member a few bucks, big deal. It’s only once a month. I’ll wager each of your members probably eats out at least once a month now. If not, they need to skip a McDonald’s lunch or a couple cappuccinos.

OK, you still refuse to use a restaurant. Fine, look around you and you will see municipal parks available for a Saturday morning meeting, have someone bring coffee. Or try a local hotel’s conference room.

The point I’m trying to make is; Courthouses are not the only public places in town, but they sure can be among the more stuffy and boring of them. Just try to offer your members something interesting once a month. If you can’t do that, why even bother having monthly meetings when you could be boring your membership only four times a year?

Do you advertise your meetings in any way? Here I mean something more than the free “what’s happening” calendar in your local paper. People look there a few times and see nothing but TOPS and AA meetings or divorce support groups and church socials and never look again. At least they’re worth what they cost, I suppose.

What’s the chances Joe the Plumber in your neighborhood is even aware of your unit?

While we are on the subject, the Party Plan requires written notice to your membership before each meeting. Remarkably there are units that do not even do that, even in this age of instant email! Why insist upon a public location and then do everything possible to keep the public from being involved? There are many low cost ways to get your unit known. Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit to find the ones that work in your area.

Get to know your local newspaper’s editor. I know, the dreaded “Liberal Mainstream Media”. Stop being so paranoid. When you become a reliable source for solid news, and not just a party flack, you may find her to become much more friendly to your causes and events. I understand this will not work in every case, but it’s certainly worth a shot. At best the newspaper will probably still lean left, but in most cases you’ll get much better coverage with this approach. A tactic of this sort is especially helpful when you have a cable access or independent TV station in your area. These guys need content and your unit and candidates need exposure. Win, win. Remember, they’re small businessmen too, struggling under more regulation than many other businesses. Most will only be an adversary if you make them one first.

When was the last time you had a really good guest speaker? Not just one of the current crop of candidates, (though they are always good to have), but someone who can motivate your membership? Someone knowledgeable on fund-raising, for example. Or someone who simply has some great old stories from Virginia’s political history. Even the old lady from the Historical Society will be more interesting than a treasurer’s report, and she will only add a few minutes to your agenda.

Informed voters are usually Republican voters. Do you use your meetings to educate your membership on the nuances of Virginia’s politics? Your members would appreciate being told that RPV has no real control over a House of Delegates or Senate race for example. Education can go beyond Virginia politics, of course. The education program for your unit can be easily folded into your guest speaker program. Conservatives can be found everywhere. Ask your VFW post for a speaker, your local DAV would also probably be happy to help. You probably already know a few businessmen or women who can speak on the problems their business faces. Problems your unit can work to bring to our candidate’s or GA member’s attention. Look around you; there are literally dozens of choices.

Shaun offers a few other solutions, to a few other problems, but when the only tool you have is a hammer pretty soon all your problems look like nails. Shaun is a blogger. A very good, very committed blogger. His solutions and suggestions all seem to indicate that a blog is the best tool to use in most cases. It can be, in some cases, but a blog done wrong is worse than no blog at all. A blog requires equal portions of restraint and thought, and most importantly, a good writer or writing team. If you, or trusted people within your unit, cannot do a blog well, do not attempt it.

Shaun suggests that if you don’t do a blog, perhaps you should consider a forum. I personally do not like forums but many people do. Just remember, a forum requires a lot of supervision and moderation which equals a lot of time. If you take this route be prepared to spend much of each evening policing the forum for misbehavior. If you let your forum devolve into a mean-spirited, name-calling, litter box you may cause damage to your local brand that can take years to clean up.

Create Or Purchase A Website

Do seriously consider a website. Put some of the younger members of your team in charge of creating a website. If you have the talent in house – and I’m betting you do if there’s a community college nearby – a website need not cost much. If you do the heavy lifting yourself or in-house, less than $120 per year will put your unit online. Moderately priced professional design options are also available. (RPV could certainly help lower the cost. Hosting a local unit’s website can and should be offered by RPV for much less than commercial hosting providers, perhaps even providing a small profit to RPV.)

A website can be static, that is, remain relatively unchanged for long periods of time, and still be useful. A well designed website can combine static elements with newsletter type features or even a rapidly updated blog. A forum can even be incorporated, if you decide to go that route. If properly planned for, these enhancements can be added later. It is important to get your unit online, but again, if it’s done wrong or it’s poorly designed it is worse than leaving the idea on the table. Do it right, or don’t do it. A good, efficient design and sharp writing skills are essential. In general, less is more. Give your website visitors what they come for, information. Pretty little glittery images and loud Lee Greenwood songs may appeal to you, but they will only turn off visitors and tag your website as the work of amateurs. For inspiration look at the simplicity of Google.com. Now, you obviously do not want a front page as sparse as Google’s, but the concept is the same. Google gives its visitors just what they come for. No more. No less.

Other New Media Resources

There are many more New Media resources available that will appeal to your members of all ages. The list is almost endless. YouTube, Skype, Facebook, many different flavors of Instant Messaging, Google Calendar, and much much more. Used wisely, they can all translate into improved communication within, and without, your committee.

The oldest, and most overlooked and underutilized, is plain old email. But I’ll bet you’re not sending each member a slick, well designed monthly or weekly newsletter using a service like Constant Contact, are you? With such a service almost anyone can send professional looking bulk emails. Look at the Cuccinelli Compass, Ken produces those himself using Constant Contact. The service is free up to a certain number of addresses, and pretty cheap after you reach the paid level. If you’ve taken the plunge and created a domain and website, and your hosting service is halfway adequate, you probably already have the ability to send the same quality emails to more addresses than you’ll ever need for free.

Learn to Twitter. It’s deceptively simple, and on first glance seems like a pretty girl with great legs, big ta-tas and no brain, it may fun to play with for while, but you just don’t see any potential for a meaningful long-term relationship. I resisted Twitter for as long as I could, because it seemed so mindless. But since I’ve started I can see that it’s a simple tool with some great uses. The simplicity and limitations that at first made it look so frivolous, instead are its strengths.

Think of twitter as a broadcast version of instant messaging that seldom devolves into a time-wasting, pointless conversation as instant messaging or even texting tends to do. The best feature of Twitter is that it does not require you or your message target to be sitting at a computer. Even the most basic cell phone can now send and receive Twitter messages. It’s a simple to use tool that will allow you to pass a short text message to one person, or to many people at once.

A Twitter drawback, too many people use Twitter just to announce what they are doing at the moment. For example, right now Creigh Deeds is driving up I81 and listening to CCR. I really don’t need to know that, Creigh.

Use your imagination just a bit though. Suppose Tucker Watkins needs to get a small group of activists together tomorrow in Danville to run interference at a Tom Perriello rally. One or two Tweets, (as individual Twitter message are called), could get him a few dozen people overnight. Tweets can be as public or private as you wish them to be. You have complete control over who gets the messages you send. Look into Twitter and open your imagination, I’m sure you can put it to use in your unit committee.

If your unit does not have a Facebook group page, shame on you. A Facebook group is a great free way to communicate general, non-sensitive messages with no time constraints to your members. If your message is sensitive in nature, or needs to be read right now, fall back to email or Twitter. The same thing applies to RPVnetwork or the new Bob McDonnell Action Network. Take a look at Ning, the platform both of these social networks are based on and see the possibilities.

One More Thought On Blogging

I’ve blogged since 2005 and I’ve long said that blogging is not a magic bullet. Bloggers are seldom the journalists they think they are, nor are they the staggering influence some seem to think. Lowell Feld is the only one who still believes Raising Kaine got Jim Webb elected. But that’s only because Ben Tribbett is convinced he did it.

That said, however, Virginia is blessed with a very wide and deep selection of conservative political bloggers, most of whom handle the medium very well. If your area is lucky enough to have a prominent Virginia political blogger, embrace that. Your pet blogger can get your unit notice and attention that it can get nowhere else. I’m certain your local blogger would jump at the chance to write about your next fund-raiser or event. She would love to cover a meeting with an exciting guest speaker. Invite her. Work with her. When folks in neighboring units see what exciting events you are pulling off, they will let their friends in your area know.

You’ll notice I mentioned fund raising up there. Get creative, have as many fundraisers as you can. Involve the community. Support a cause. Just have a fun event like a bachelor auction or golf tournament. (Both of which, if done well, bring in gobs of cash by the way.)

The Ultimate Goal

Stop being so paranoid about your local Liberal Mainstream Media, become comfortable with the opportunities presented by New Media, and work harder and smarter to make the Republican Party in your area something worth joining. You’ll increase the productive activity within your unit and increase your membership as well. Those two items together will also have a nice side effect on your local fund-raising. The combination of all three will make a much more effective unit, and that translates into increased success for our Republican candidates.
After all, that is the ultimate goal, right?