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Of Mark Berg, Barbara Comstock, and the Purpose of the Party

Over the past month, intra-party tensions have run high following the contentious removal of Delegate Mark Berg from his leadership position within the 10th District Republican Committee and State Central Committee. This controversy has inflamed passions and overshadowed other points of disagreement, including the recent emails from Susan Stimpson and Russ Moulton criticizing Party Chairman John Whitbeck’s leadership [1] in what may be a prelude to a contested chairman’s race at the RPV’s quadrennial convention in April, 2016.

Embedded in this controversy is a darker undercurrent with implications reaching far beyond intra-party Republican politics within one district committee. Rumors have circulated of primary and independent challenges to Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, begging the question: is much of the factional tension in the 10th a prelude to a larger intra-party fight yet to come?

Do the current tensions in the 10th directly tie in to larger conflicts rumored to be on the way?

From the beginning, truth in the Berg affair became a casualty of factional warfare as allies aligned and opponents’ motives were questioned, facts be damned.

The good of the party demands that the intensity of this conflict be reduced. To move forward productively, Republicans must remain focused on the issues and the rules, not the people.

Where rules remain vague and open to dispute, pragmatic leaders must boldly act to clarify the party plan by means of an amendment, to prevent ambiguity from inflaming similar conflict in the future.

Accusations that Chairman Whitbeck acted maliciously or with ill will remain factually unfounded. The same applies to 10th district Chairwoman Jo Thoburn. Party leadership faced a difficult controversy which it attempted to defuse in accordance with the party plan.

Though the party’s response lacked malice, it still could have been handled more proactively.

In his defense, Berg’s supporters have frequently cited the timeline surrounding various communications with party leadership.

Since his election in 2013, Berg has been a most approachable delegate, who took great pride in his accessibility and participation in party politics, while working hard to cultivate his image as a citizen legislator and everyman. For this reason, claims he remained unaware of the organized write-in campaign waged by his most fervent supporters defy common sense.

Common sense, however, is fundamentally distinct from formal evidence.

Party leadership at some level clearly erred on a minor level in not bringing the issue to the attention of Berg and the applicable committees by August, at the latest, when it was clear the election-night calls for a write-in campaign would not subside.

The discussion did not need to be confrontational – formal notice of the write-in campaign along with a routine call for a Republican leader to endorse a Republican candidate would have sufficed.

At that point, the ball would have been in Berg’s court, absent the deadline-driven ultimatums and disputes over timelines which now breed disruptive intra-party tension.

While sweeping problems under the rug may be business-as-usual in Washington, it cannot be the status quo in Virginia, as unresolved issues will invariably fester to the detriment of the party.

Going forward, the party plan must be clarified to prevent similar recurrences, for ambiguity leads to disagreement, disagreement leads to infighting, and infighting leads to Democratic victories.

Make no mistake: Berg acted inappropriately in not supporting the nominee of the party in which he held a leadership position. Republicans who voluntarily join the party’s internal infrastructure are rightly expected to proactively support the entire Republican ticket according to a higher standard – the expectations of which Berg clearly failed to meet.

As a leader on SCC, Berg should have approached this campaign against a Republican with impartiality, using his leadership and name to the benefit of the nominee of the party he helped lead. He should have recoiled against this opposition to a Republican nominee – but he didn’t.

While some of Berg’s supporters have taken to post-hoc justifications in pursuing factional warfare, the ongoing controversy does raise a very important question: what is the purpose of the Republican Party of Virginia?

The purpose of the Republican Party apparatus is simple: it exists to elect Republicans.

The task of advancing Republican values falls to Republican candidates, who must first win their respective elections. To this end, the party exists to organize efforts among like-minded individuals in building the campaign machinery necessary to win in furtherance of the party’s common goal.

Those who don’t wish to pledge their support for the Republican ticket can still be allies of the party, though they may not be the best fit for internal leadership positions under the party’s rules.

Likewise, those who disagree with Catholic doctrine shouldn’t aspire to leadership positions in their local diocese, those who don’t want to go to war shouldn’t join the Army, and those opposed to wearing funny hats are a poor fit for membership in the Shriners.

Unfortunately, these tensions in the 10th may foreshadow a greater conflict yet to come.

Back in June, the Virginia Vision PAC made headlines in calling for primary challenges [2] against Republican Congressmembers, including 10th district Congresswoman Barbara Comstock.

The Congresswoman scored a narrow victory in August when the 10th District Committee chose a state-run primary by the slimmest of margins [3] in a tied vote ultimately broken by District Chairwoman Jo Thoburn. In the run-up to the vote, a curious level of energy was expended by those arguing against a state-run primary, despite the lack of any identified challenger at that point.

If no challenger was sought or standing by, then why expend the energy?

Comstock first drew activist ire in supporting Speaker Boehner at the outset of her term. Months later, she encountered more intense activist opposition when she voted with the will of her district to fund DHS during the executive amnesty controversy, and in doing so, avoided a politically disastrous government shutdown sure to displease voters – particularly federal employees – in her moderate Northern Virginia district.

Since then, rumors of potential primary challengers have ridden a chain of whispers from one party insider to another. One frequently suggested challenger is Delegate Berg, whose potential involvement in any contest in the 10th adds a new, curious perspective to the puzzlingly high level of energy expended on behalf of those defending his actions ab initio.

With elections every year, Virginia’s political parties face little downtime and are never short on work for those who volunteer. For the most part, the party’s ranks are open to those willing to help, even in the occasional case where a certain degree of political rehabilitation is required.

In most cases, a quiet apology expressed alongside a willingness to help going forward is sufficient for reinstating a member who temporarily strayed outside the boundaries of the party plan.

In this case, why did some choose the path of escalated conflict over a post-election opportunity to bury the hatchet? Do some of those insisting on a full exoneration of Berg have ulterior motives, besides the mere desire to be proven right?

Time will tell if those most insistent upon Berg’s innocence and supposed martyrdom at the hands of the party’s “establishment” ultimately desire his election to another position of public leadership through another challenge of a sitting Republican.

While party infighting on this scale could prove disastrous for a sitting Congresswoman facing a difficult election in 2016, the rumors don’t end at intra-party challenges.

Other, more belligerent elements have floated the idea of running an independent challenger to Comstock. Most frequently, this loose talk takes the form of a single-issue anti-immigration candidate whose campaign would run far to the right of the sense of the district.

Such an action would likely burn the seat for many elections to come by siphoning off enough votes to allow a more unified Democratic coalition to secure victory amid Republican infighting. If defeated in 2016, Republicans will face great difficulty in overcoming Democratic incumbency to retake this key district in 2018.

What is ultimately gained by ceding this seat to the Democrats?

For the most disgruntled, burning the seat is the point. A stinging loss in a winnable seat would inevitably push moderate Republicans nationwide to the right, much as Cantor’s defeat did in 2014. Fearful of the “you can’t win without us” mindset of an element within the activist base, moderates in moderate districts would face a tough choice between voting with their districts’ interests and voting with those inclined towards primary challenges or withholding support in general elections.

Comstock’s record of representing the interests of constituents in her swing district is to be commended and should serve as an example to Republicans elsewhere. Republicans could not ask for a more conservative representative in this seat, and for that reason, all wings of the party should be denouncing efforts to sow the seeds of discord in the 10th district.

Though Comstock’s campaign operates from a position of strength made possible through strong fundraising and the proven record associated with incumbency, retaining this vital seat will require help and support from all wings of the party when the district’s turnout profile shifts more Democratic during a presidential year.

During that year, conservatives will have a vital role to play in helping preserve the House’s Republican majority.

In the 10th, Mark Berg could send a powerful message of unity by publicly disavowing those who invoke his name as a primary challenger, while helping quench the passions of those who seek to set the district ablaze as a counterproductive “warning” to others. In using his conservative voice to issue a call for unity, much of the goodwill lost by not disavowing the write-in campaign could be recaptured, for few political actions could speak more strongly to a desire to return to the party’s core purpose: electing Republicans.

In the meantime, Virginia Republicans must wait, watch, and worry over whether continued distraction, infighting, and idling of GOP assets will ultimately cripple efforts to reclaim the top of the ticket in 2016.