So, who’s running this party anyway?

Yesterday’s “Burgers with Bill,” held in the normally sleepy days following the end of primaries, the end of school, and pre-Independence day, has gotten folks to thinking.

Why? Because the GOP is in complete transition. And it’s time to just openly accept it.

In an earlier post, Brian Kirwin takes on the very interesting scenario of Bill Bolling staying in the race and challenging Ken Cuccinelli to a convention grudge match.

While I disagree with his thoughts that Bolling could have won the race, I do agree that the outcomes of the down-ticket races could have been very different. Particularly with the nomination for lieutenant governor.

That said, as I mentioned in my morning email, Virginia is a very different place for conservatives than it once was even a week ago, let alone a year.

In November of 2012, George Allen lost his chance to return to the US Senate – along with GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney, who failed to carry Virginia for a Republican for the second straight presidential election cycle (following a string of victories since 1964). Last June, Cuccinelli was riding high as the gubernatorial nominee and Bolling was sulking, making comments to the press about how the GOP wasn’t mainstream. Then, Bob McDonnell became embroiled in his current controversy. And, Republicans went on to lose all three state offices, which meant a loss of the state Senate when both Lt. Gov. Northam and Atty. Gen. Herring were also replaced by Democrats in the legislature. Then, Rep. Eric Cantor lost his primary to Dave Brat just last week.

So, when many of the former leaders gathered last night for “Burgers with Bill,” which used to be a much sought after fundraising ticket, but is now an event that is paid for by Bolling’s PAC, it seemed a bit like a nod to the past and a reflection on the current state of the party.

McDonnell summed up his sense of things to the Washington Post:

“It shows that we’re not a monolithic group, that we have a broad coalition of conservatives, of libertarians, of moderates that all believe in the basic message of fiscal responsibility and limited government, and sometimes people from different parts of that coalition make a stronger case during an election cycle,” he said.

While that might be true, there is certainly a leadership vacuum – even with the news that the Senate is likely to return to a GOP majority.

Gone are the days of leaders who would captivate Republican attention: John Warner, George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Earley, John Hager, Bob McDonnell, Bill Bolling, Ken Cuccinelli and Eric Cantor. And, certainly, some might be saying “good riddance” to several of them. But that leaves a very interesting question – who is going to step up and grasp the mantle of leadership? Randy Forbes? Rob Wittman? Morgan Griffith? Dave Brat? Bill Howell? Tommy Norment? Pete Snyder? Scott Lingamfelter? Tom Davis?

For some, it might be a once in a lifetime chance. And, it will be interesting to see who takes that chance (or who resurrects themselves). But what “Burgers with Bill” did is remind GOP loyalists of what the Republican Party once was and how different it is going forward. Change can be refreshing – but only if the changes mean the conservative movement can coalesce and advance principles that promote the freedom and economic well-being we enjoyed under past leaders…many who enjoyed a grilled burger yesterday.

Of course, who also attended last evening’s festivities? Ed Gillespie – the GOP US Senate candidate – who would gladly fill the void. And, gladly accepted the endorsements of those who attended.

Gillespie is the obvious choice and should be the one the party faithful rally around through the summer and into the general election. But, already, with the hiring of Ray Allen onto the campaign team, with Creative Direct being used to do some periodic campaign work (not in a strategic role) those who felt disenfranchised – or, at least, discounted – by the “slating” maneuver inflicted during party district chairman contests, are already questioning whether Gillespie will truly represent them and their interests.

Gillespie needs to reassure them.

Another potential leader: Sen. Mark Obenshain.

Obenshain came within a hairs-breadth of being attorney general and, arguably of the three who ran statewide in 2013, the one with the strongest campaign and broadest appeal.

Obenshain must be considered a favorite for governor in 2017, but where is he now?

As I mentioned to one very astute reader, while Obenshain is certainly in the mix to lead the party into the future, his leadership has been very quiet during the session. While the man who defeated him, Attorney General Mark Herring, has been taking steps to undermine Virginia law, and conservatives have been debating how to prevent the expansion of ObamaCare into Virginia, a law that was challenged by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, we’ve heard precious little from the senator from Harrisonburg.

Of course, there is also Obenshain’s former AG rival Rob Bell, who should also be on a very short list for the party to rally around. He has been ever present since the campaign and helped author the amendment currently under threat of line-item veto from Governor McAuliffe on Medicaid expansion.

While Obenshain and Bell…or perhaps Gillespie, once he’s elected…seem locgial choices as elected party leadership, Virginia still has a Republican leader in Chairman Pat Mullins.

Mullins has been walking the tight-rope ever since inheriting the position from Jeff Fredericks. Ever mindful of his right flank and those who claimed Fredericks was dissed by the establishment (never mind his mismanagement of the party and gross negligence), Mullins has done the best anyone could reasonably expect of someone trying to placate and hold together a party torn asunder by competing conservative interests.

Mullins doesn’t nearly get the credit he deserves – mainly because the GOP keeps losing under his watch.

However, one can’t believe that what happened in 2011 with the state Senate, 2012 with Romney/Allen v Obama/Kaine, and 2013 can all be laid at the feet of the party chairman…especially given the back-biting and infighting that’s been going on.

With the hiring of Pat McSweeney as legal counsel and Shaun Kenney as Executive Director, the prospects of RPV reaching out towards the Tea Party and more conservative elements seemed possible.

Since Kenney’s hire, both Bolling and Cuccinelli have donated to “the cause.”

The collective $40k in donations from the rivals could demonstrate a potential narrowing of the divide between the moderate and conservative factions of the party.

But does it? That probably will be reflected by the pocketbooks of others and whether they trust Mullins to lead them to victory.

It’s summer. We should be kicked back and relaxing. Or, at least getting ready to challenge for the federal elections. Instead, it seems the party is rudderless and without a captain.

Are GOP faithful ready to follow Gillespie, Mullins, Obenshain and Bell to victory? Are Gillespie, Mullins, Obenshain, and Bell capable of uniting the party?

The answers to these questions are probably up to you.