In case you’ve been living under a rock on Mars, the GOP has not won a statewide election in Virginia since Bob McDonnell led a ticket-wide sweep in 2009. Since then we’ve been locked into an ever-repeating cycle:
1. Nominate a candidate
2. Lose an election
3. Complain about RPV
4. Brainstorm a million ways to fix it
5. Start again at Step 1
There are lots of ideas on how to fix RPV. Perhaps you’ve seen some of them. Purge the moderates. Purge the non-moderates. Focus on conservative principles. Focus on grassroots campaigning. Support Trump. Oppose Trump. Elect new leadership. Go back to previous leadership. Improve messaging. Hire better vendors. Hire better staff. Get rid of secret ballots. Hold fewer meetings at McGuire Woods. Serve booze at meetings (okay, that last one might be mine).
All of these ideas are presented in earnest, by various shades of Republicans who believe they’ve identified the problem and genuinely want to fix it. But in spending so much effort trying to invent a new-and-improved Republican Party of Virginia, they’re contributing to the reason why it doesn’t work in the first place.
You know how conservatives (well, a few of us) lament that the Presidency is so powerful that it matters so much who is elected? We should be treating RPV the same way. It shouldn’t matter who keeps the lights on at RPV headquarters.
We expect too much out of RPV and party units in general. These well-intentioned ideas to fix the problem only perpetuate the myth that RPV should be doing more, not less.
Back to Basics: What is the RPV’s Mandate?
RPV is not the Republican Party. We, Republican voters, are.
RPV is NOT the “grassroots.” RPV is NOT a platform for activists. RPV is NOT a policymaker. RPV is NOT our best messenger. RPV is NOT the arbiter of Republicanism or conservatism.
So what is the RPV? It’s a method by which we choose how we nominate candidates for office and provide top-down logistical support nominated candidates, like data files and legal support. That’s pretty much it.
Much of the work at RPV is managing county units and district units. What is the purpose of those units? To choose the method of nomination for contests at the local and district level. Folks on those committees typically make efforts to graft a grassroots operation on top of their mandate, but there’s no requirement to do so.
But what of RPV? It’s a simple question: Should the RPV help elect Republican candidates?
Of course they should, you might say. It sounds like a good idea. Certainly can’t hurt (except for all the times it does).
How many times have we heard about a state or district committee taking on core election responsibility, only for it to not work properly, or be understaffed or underfunded? How many times have chairmen and party officials said or done stupid things that causes Republican candidates to distance themselves or respond?
Despite those misadventures, the idea of a state party intentionally not helping candidates still sounds like heresy.
If the RPV doesn’t help elect candidates, then who will???
Well, for starters, the candidates will. Candidates organize a campaign, which hires a staff, hires vendors, determines its goals, and orients its messaging and tactics for the sole purpose of collecting enough votes to win.
If they’re running for federal office, there’s the NRCC and NRSC to help them [or not, in some cases]. The nominee for Governor has the RGA. There’s the RLGA for Lt. Governors, and RAGA for Attorneys General, and the RSLC for the General Assembly, not to mention the House and Senate Caucuses. Those are all official arms, staffed by professional campaign people.
Then there’s an ever-growing list of third-party groups enabled by recent campaign finance decisions. The CLF. The Koch Brothers. The Mercers. Dick Uihlein. They all run third-party grassroots organizations, built off a strong payroll and an army of activists.
Finally, there’s the potential for locally-grown party units or third-party groups, like women’s clubs or YR clubs or the SUVGOP, or even more organic groups that sprout up.
With all of the above, what is the need for the state party to have a proactive role in winning elections? Sometimes they don’t even do anything beyond cutting a check to candidates, like grandparents who don’t know what to give you for Christmas so let you buy anything you want. Why are they even soliciting funds in the first place?
Trust the professionals
Look back at the last ten years of Republican futility and ask yourself: does the RPV do a particularly good job of promoting Republican policies? Of messaging? Of outreach? And your answer to fix it is for them to do it more?
If you break it down, it’s easy to spot the disconnect: party leaders are usually not campaign professionals. They’re activists, or connected party people, who are selected at a convention. Sometimes they hire campaign professionals. Sometimes they don’t.
Contrast that to the candidates themselves, who are 100% all-in on winning their election. They take winning seriously, and hire professionals. They conduct job interviews and vet vendors explicitly on their ability to message and win elections. Those staff and vendors responsible for helping with messaging and outreach have dedicated their career to this endeavor, and their livelihood depends on doing it well.
This is how it works: elected officials determine policy. Voters vote for candidates to enact their preferred policies. Campaigns engage with voters with messaging on how they’ll approach policy matters. Funds are raised and tactics are devised to best spread that candidate’s message.
Where in logic chain must we insert the state party?
It’s often said that the best Chairman is someone who can raise money and stay out of the headlines. The implication is if a Chairman is in the headlines, it’s for saying or doing something stupid. So why do we even want our party leaders as part of our professional messaging apparatus?
Maybe it should stop trying.
RPV isn’t the Republican Party. We are.
The Republican Party is comprised of Republican voters. For the vast majority of Republicans, their sole is just that – voting. Some Republicans vote in primaries. Most vote only in general elections.
Where I live, in Prince William County, almost 55,000 voters took the action of voting for the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, Corey Stewart. Around 16,000 took the action of voting in the Republican primary to nominate a candidate for U.S. Senate. Around 110 people took the action of joining the Prince William GOP Committee.
This is not an indictment on the PWCGOP, or any other unit committee. But if you randomly called every GOP Primary voter in Prince William County, there’d be a greater than 99 percent chance that they are not a member of the local committee.
In 2013, I worked on a Lt. Governor’s campaign for the convention, and my area included Fairfax County. I lived in and worked on campaigns in Fairfax, and knew the FCRC crowd well. We all had no idea that E.W. Jackson would win Fairfax County on the first ballot. His voters were all people we didn’t know. They certainly weren’t FCRC members. But here they were, Republicans voting at a Republican convention.
So FCRC and PWCGOP are not the Republican Party. There’s tens of thousands of Republicans who exist in those counties outside those committees.
I ran for SCC in the 11th district in 2016. Around 550 folks registered and voted in that convention. Just about 83,000 people just voted for Jeff Dove, our Republican nominee. Statewide, over 300,000 people voted in the Republican Primary and over 1 million voted for Corey Stewart.
Suffice to say, RPV is not the Republican Party.
Maybe it should stop trying to be.
Maybe if it stopped trying to be, people would take to social media and email chains in the weeks after an election loss and dream up ways to improve it. Maybe if RPV wasn’t viewed as a vehicle for conservatism, people would stop trying to figure out ways to make it a better vehicle for their own brand of conservatism.
And then maybe if we didn’t have so many competing brands of conservatism all trying to be represented at RPV and our other unit committees, we wouldn’t have so much squabbling about who controls the reins.
Maybe if RPV and the other units weren’t vehicles for activists at all, the activists could channel their efforts on things that actually influence voters. Then they wouldn’t need RPV to take a stand on issues.
Maybe if the party stayed out of policy issues, it wouldn’t feel the need to take on tasks that are best suited for the professionals. That includes messaging and tactics, and behind-the-scenes actions like recruiting candidates or stacking the deck in favor of preferred candidates.
Maybe if it stopped doing those things, then RPV would stop cannibalizing finite resources that campaigns need, including fundraising. There is a limited role for fundraising, which is as a supplement for donors who have already contributed directly to candidates. But RPV and party leaders should not be the public face of the party; candidates should be.
Maybe if party leaders trusted campaigns and trusted professionals, stopped being a vehicle for activists, and abided by a simple rule of only taking actions that help gain votes, we as Republicans would have one less thing to squabble about after a loss.
And maybe, just maybe, if we remove party leadership as something for us to squabble about, that would leave us no choice but to take a long look in the mirror and truly figure out why we’re losing so everloving much.