Make Virginia Win Again

While the smoke was still hot on the “Party Registration” fire, New Year’s Day brought the news that dirty politics is alive and well in Virginia.  Surprise, right? The focus is now on the Lieutenant Governor’s race where Senator Bryce Reeves has run to ground the internet source, at least on paper, of the e-mail which smeared his name and that of a campaign staffer last year. My only surprise is the stupidity of whoever cooked it up.  If they thought Reeves, a former Army Ranger, narcotics Investigator, and family, man would not take action, they were mistaken. 

That news preempted, at least for the present, the discussion of party registration so I decided to throw a little more oil on the fire, reopening the discussion in a different way. My reasons for urging our lawmakers to bite the bullet and get us out of the “Loser’s Club” are detailed here on Much Ado About Party Registration, 10 Myths Debunked, but in the meantime let’s take a walk down memory lane and see what brought us here in the first place.   

I won’t bore you with the usual diatribe about how long I have been around party processes. Let’s just say I am a dinosaur and leave it at that.  In the olden days, or once upon a time, whichever you prefer, the State Central Committee of our Republican Party of Virginia met to discuss on a case by case basis how best to win elections so, as a result, we had both conventions and primaries. 

This is called strategic planning and the Democrats still do it, just in case you hadn’t noticed.  In the stone age, however — circa 2000 — there were the few angry members of the State Central Committee (SCC) and activists who mostly had one thing in common: they were failed wannabees and politicians themselves.  Keep that in mind as we move forward. 

Enter the beginnings of the Tea Party Movement which was, in my humble opinion, an uprising long overdue and one which was great for Caroline County.  In Caroline, we don’t like labels so our Tea Party folks quickly became either committee members or solid, long term helpers to the conservative cause.  

I hope my history series here on Bearing Drift is explaining the uniqueness of our county and how we came to be so independent. (See The Early Rebels of Caroline, Bacon’s Rebellion Opens the Way Into Caroline and the Virginia Frontier, The First People of Caroline, and Happy Thanksgiving from Caroline County, Virginia.) We are basically, even today, just country people who depend on our own hard work and, in tough times, each other. These traditions go back centuries, even before the American Revolution and the very first Tea Party.

What the Tea Party movement also meant to Caroline was that the phone began to ring.  “Tell Jeff we get what he’s doing.  We get why he’s been standing at the polls for a decade working in support of conservatives.  Is there anything I can do? Can I bring him lunch? Can I drive people to the polls? How can I help?”  Another classic line repeated more than once, “I’m awake now!”

Fueled in 2008 by our very first Republican elected to the Board of Supervisors who had been standing at those polls for a decade as a private citizen, the movement grew and it wasn’t based on meetings, bylaws, and dues to any organization.  This is a message I have tired to convey time and time again with no success.  Our local committee has always been diverse, from folks who are beyond Tea Party to Center Right, but they alone cannot bring the numbers to elect candidates.  While the committees are the process “bones” of the party, so to speak, a movement must be much bigger than this … but I digress

Meanwhile, remember those angry failed career politicians and activists always buzzing around those SCC meetings?  The Tea Party could not have been worse news for their ambitious, narrow, personal agendas and vendettas.  None of these new people knew about their greatness, or what they had accomplished, or that they should be Senators and Delegates or much more.  The worst part was these new people were not even good donors, a huge problem, as they could not be used to finance a campaign.  These were just regular working people finally fed up with the failed polices of D.C. and scared to death that Obama would bring worse. So these wannabees huffed and they cussed that new movement until suddenly a light bulb went off within those heads.

What, they reasoned, if there were a use for these new people who, after all, did not have a clue about processes?  What if all that energy could be harnessed in a way to get elected or get our buddies elected? This could be the clue to settling a boatload of old scores. Why, these people should not be cursed. They should be bused, doggone it!  Bused to every convention we can control and rig in the foreseeable future. 

What if we tell them it’s about Dems voting in primaries even though that has been happening on a small scale for years?  We can’t, of course use primaries. That allows too much room for free thinking and no control.  The possibilities are endless if we can close it off and include only the most ardent, angry new activists who will actually show up for conventions that we will run.  Think what would happen if we traveled the state to become the savior and BFFs of all these newbies.  At the same time, we will help paint them as unapproachable and crazy, so no one else will want to deal in that arena.  

Practically speaking to actually execute this plan, one has to have a majority on the State Central Committee and so began the purge of 2011, with Ken Cuccinelli as the standard bearer.  To control SCC one must control the committee chairs who exert influence over committee delegations and who pick district chairs.  These in turn go to SCC and choose the nomination method. As is true of any purge, collateral damage was a given, with corporate memory sent home and committees ceasing to function for years all over Virginia. Entire committees tied to each other with comradeship and mutual respect and years of working together walked out of doors, never to return.  Did I mention it was an election year for Governor?

It’s one thing to “take over” a committee and the fun that goes along with it but quite another to run it properly with all that entails.  No one told folks about deadlines to State Board of Elections, or the local registrar or how to certify a local candidate or how to craft a judge’s letter for an electoral board appointment, or properly recorded minutes and treasurer’s records, and chairman for committees and fundraisers, or what color a sample ballot can be printed on.  You get the picture. Meanwhile we scratch our heads in amazement that Cuccinelli lost.

In 2011, in Caroline we survived the onslaught planned and executed from outside our county due in part to our Tea Party folks who turned out in droves to support Jeff for Chairman.  Making up their own time for our mass meeting, the opposition arrived in a van, gang style, and piled out an hour early and rudely beat on the door of our beloved 1835 Courthouse designed by students of Thomas Jefferson.  They were people I had never seen before or since at any community event or to help with any candidate in our county. Some of the local farmers wanted to take care of those beating on the door, ” Caroline style,” but we made sure that did not happen. 

Inside later, the vote was tallied 150 to 25 with 100 more of Jeff’s supporters standing outside in the dark on the Courthouse lawn. They had been ushered out there by the Fire Marshall due to the size of the room. The opponent, in disappointment, beat his cane on the floor.  The Sparta Volunteer Fire Department was in the jury chamber as the main room was so packed. They heard the banging on our old courtroom stone floor and filed out, one by one, again wanting to take care of the situation.  Caroline County people, you gotta love them.

And so by the end of 2011, statewide, CONVENTIONS ONLY was born. The tool of sitting down with the leadership and architects of the party, and figuring out short- and long-term strategy for winning, was dead. 

Ironically, more than half our people in 2011 were Cuccinelli supporters who had met him in 2008 at an event at my home. The picture above was taken by the local newspaper who won an award for the very first picture ever taken of the “Dream Team” — Bob McDonnell, Bill Bolling, and Ken Cuccinelli — before they were candidates for office. It was taken in my den. At that event Cuccinelli was asked what his future plans were and he answered that he would be a two-term Attorney General.

Caroline people took him at his word that he would serve two terms as AG, and our delegation to the 2009 convention went 100 percent for Ken Cuccinelli for Attorney General. When they found out he had lied to them and engineered the takeover of the committee’s mass meeting that night at our courthouse and the ensuing chaos all over Virginia, he lost their support forever. When they realized they had been targeted because Bolling was their State Senator, and the goal by Cuccinelli was to pass him by for Governor, they never forgot, and still remember. Try explaining why rational thinking does not play. There was no daylight between the records of the members of the Dream Team. What was wrong, they asked, with twelve years in a row — McDonnell, Bolling, then Cuccinelli — of amazing Republican leadership in the Governor’s Mansion? Try explaining to regular folks, who have supported Republicans all their lives, why they are the target of an ambitious personal agenda.  Do we really wonder why we lose?

If you honestly don’t think all politics is local, try explaining to someone why its leaders do not value your service after you’ve worked and voted for decades for Republicans. Try explaining why they were thrown under the bus for what they might or might not think about “conventions.”  The hurt is real and palpable especially with what was being accomplished with the movement in Caroline by turning around decades of liberal spending and graft. Our committee and its supporters learned that a Ken Cuccinelli does not care about these things, only about stacking the deck in his favor. He was willing to dismantle the whole business to get his nomination.

When he was officially nominated, we turned around and worked for him like crazy because that is what team players do. We signed a pledge, and here we do what is right, not what is easy.   

Enter the Libertarian movement who were trying to come into their own in Virginia and who asked for a seat at the table. The pickings were easy for those folks to be manipulated as well. The Republican workers still standing who could not be run off from their own county committees, by the grace of God, were wary of the whole purge process beginning again and were not welcoming. The wannabees were there with open arms, ready to begin using this novel and unexpected Libertarian gift all over again.

There was a slight problem though with this new order which is, of course, just a new, ambitious establishment who were firmly in the driver’s seat with the exception of a few enclaves. By this time the results of the purge were in and we were beginning to lose. It’s okay to lose, they told the new folks. It’s a badge of honor. You stuck to your principles.  Just because we nominated a candidate with a handful of people, who could not possibly have won the general election, and wore a tinfoil hat, does not mean you are losers. 

Just for the record: it’s not okay to lose.          

So, if you have not guessed, the infamous Virginia Conservative Fellowship (VCF) and famous Virginia Conservative Network (VCN) were born amid all these shenanigans. In Caroline, as you can imagine, we don’t like labels and we are not joiners. Every so often we deflect an inroad of sorts thunk up by someone, usually connected with VCF and always from outside the county, who has not a clue about the dynamics here, and we go on about our business.  Frankly, we are too busy electing conservatives and growing the movement to have dinners and conference calls.  All of that detracts from the real work. In the intervening years, as things settled down, members of both groups have been good to Caroline.  They figured it out.  We are eyes-on-the-prize warriors without time for nonsense, and “users” don’t make out well here.

We are also team players, however, and Caroline has worked and helped with every convention for a decade, but stupid is getting old. SCC, whose entire original mission has been subverted, is now loaded, due to the convention vs primary dynamic, with consultants and barely-undercover campaign staffers. They debate one question and one question only ad nauseum: convention vs primary.  Another translation is they debate whatever method is best for their employer. It’s sad really, as there are many good and well-meaning people left on SCC, but they are giving up and getting off. My friend, Allen Webb, who has been a mentor and advocate for Caroline for years, is one of those. This year he told me he just could not take it anymore.    

While there are many reasons to support party registration, which I detail in a companion article here on Bearing Drift, one of the most important reasons is that it will clean up SCC. It takes time, hard work, dedication to a idea larger than yourself, and brain cells to engineer victories in the long term. This is a job for which many will quickly realize they are not suited. It’s one thing to filibuster on the charms of conventions and primaries, but quite another to plan to retain the Governor’s Mansion and the General Assembly long term, building consensus among team mates and potential candidates statewide.

Party Registration will probably pave the way for more folks to be amenable to primaries, and it’s not a bad thing. Think of the friends we will make when we are actually about letting everyday regular conservatives, the disabled, elderly, the military, single moms, large families, and everyone else who cannot possibly navigate a convention, have an opportunity once in awhile to pick Republican candidates.  They will be able to think for themselves, read and research candidates (oh my), and won’t have to worry about traveling a hundred miles with the expense of meals and motel rooms just to have the right to pick a candidate.

While the party registration bill, carried by Senator Obenshain, does need some tweaking, most importantly it will level this playing field and you will never again be caught up in someone else’s personal agenda. Usury will crawl back under the rock it came from because, after all, you know what so many said: “Their only problem with a primary was that it was not closed.”

It’s been a long road, folks, with all this fighting.  Let’s put it to rest once and for all. More importantly, watch who fights this bill in the General Assembly, especially those who claimed they are all for a primary as long as we have party registration.