How Tommy Norment Led Republicans Over the Cliff

Within hours of polls closing on November 5, the gravity of 2019’s elections had already become clear. Democrats won the Richmond trifecta for the first time in 26 years, with margins of 55 and 21 members in the House and Senate, respectively.

Election Day was not merely a loss for the GOP – it was a wipeout. The GOP is now completely out of power.

The depth of Tuesday’s devastation will become readily apparent to Republicans in the coming months as most everything they have worked to avoid for years passes and becomes law. Democrats have already said they will be boldly liberal. Taxes are going up, gun rights will be curtailed, abortion laws could change, and the list goes on.

The Republican Party of Virginia has been led over the cliff. The party’s rank-and-file are demanding answers and accountability for how this happened.

While some national factors were beyond the control of Virginians (while Trump is not popular, he isn’t the cause of the losses), one local name rises to the top of the list of those who bear responsibility for the GOP’s devastation: Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.

If there was a list of everyone who didn’t do everything they could to stop this, Norment’s name would be at the top.

Norment Fails to Lead

Can anyone remember the last time a major policy or messaging initiative originated through Tommy Norment’s leadership in the Senate? Neither can I.

Newt Gingrich had the “Contract with America.” Ed Gillespie rolled out 21 detailed policy proposals detailing his plans should he become governor. Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) launched 51 by 51 to highlight good Republican ideas coming out of the House of Delegates.

Bold leaders win elections by standing for something which Republicans and independents can rally behind. It doesn’t always work, but elections always go better when voters have a clear idea of the great things a party hopes to accomplish.

Under Norment’s tenure, the Senate hasn’t taken the lead on being bold in what it stands for – not even when the majority was on the line. What did they stand for this year? Where was the coordinated effort to put in a legislative package of solid bills and make sure the voters know about it?

What does Tommy Norment stand for? Reelection, and that’s about it.

For years, Norment has been content to push the “no” button and scurry off to swanky receptions with lobbyists rather than advance bold ideas for the good of the party. When good bills come out of the Senate, it’s through individual member initiative. The caucus is rarely anywhere to be seen. Teamwork is in short supply.

Norment doesn’t even engineer tough votes for Democrats or draw clear contrasts like his colleagues in the House.

Remember when the Senate jammed up then-Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam on sanctuary cities in 2017? That was Ed Gillespie’s idea, not Tommy Norment’s.

Republicans will never forget the explosive testimony on Del. Kathy Tran’s (D-Fairfax) third trimester abortion bill, which lit the fuse on what Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) said was, “Probably the most infamous session since 1861” – kicking off a round of blackface and sexual assault scandals ensnaring all three Democratic statewide leaders and giving hope to Republicans facing court-ordered redistricting.

A medical school classmate, who had protected Northam in past campaigns, became angry with the governor’s comments on late-term abortion, then tipped the press to the yearbook photo. The rest is history.

The world only heard Tran characterizing her own extreme proposal because House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) was quick on his feet when HB2491 was heard in subcommittee on January 28.

An identical bill, SB1451, was heard in the Senate 11 days prior, on January 17. Rather than raising the alarm in a campaign year, Norment’s caucus voted it down quietly and said nothing. Rather than lead and draw a contrast with Democrats, Norment’s leadership team said no big deal – a far cry from when Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) took the unprecedented step of leaving the Speaker’s dais to give a floor speech against the bill, vowing that Virginia must not become New York.

Unlike Cox, Norment didn’t fight – at least not against the Democrats.

Norment Finally Starts a Fight – With House Republicans

When an odd-year session adjourns, lawmakers hit the campaign trail, preparing for the elections which lie ahead in November. This year, with redistricting around the corner, lawmakers knew the fall results would determine the balance of power for years to come.

Democrats immediately got to work campaigning to end the Republican majorities. Likewise, most Republicans got to work defending their majorities – but not Norment.

Before the session was even over, the man charged with defending the Senate majority deployed his caucus staff to pick nomination fights with Cox’s Republican delegates in the 28th and 97th House districts rather than shoring up his own vulnerable members.

Norment’s political consigliere, Jeff Ryer, served as the general consultant who engineered the defeat of Del. Bob Thomas (R-Stafford) at the hands of Norment’s favored primary challenger, convicted felon Paul Milde.

Milde, whose criminal rap sheet includes burglary and dealing cocaine, would go on to lose a Republican-held district which delivered 60.5% of the vote to former Speaker Bill Howell in the last off-off year election. This year, it gave 51.8% of the vote to Democrat Joshua Cole, who was apparently more palatable to suburban voters than Norment’s favored pick.

With Tommy’s blessing, Ryer would collect 15,000 pieces of silver in consulting fees for the Republican-on-Republican backstabbing.

The bill for wasted Republican cash would be substantially higher. According to state records, Milde spent $462,725 during filing periods before the primary, while Thomas spent $367,011, bringing the total bill for the infighting to $829,736 in a year when Republican House candidates were underfunded and badly outspent by Democrats.

Without the Norment-backed challenger, Thomas would have stood a better chance of holding a key seat, while also freeing up Republican cash to assist GOP challengers in battleground counties like Prince William and Henrico.

Norment’s taste for infighting would not stop there.

The majority leader also helped fuel the unusually nasty race in the 97th district between Del. Chris Peace (R-Hanover) and his challenger, Scott Wyatt. For months, Norment’s staff fanned out across the district, attending meetings, organizing campaigns, and stirring up ill will, even as his Democratic counterpart, Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) was busy preparing for November.

Norment even spent from his own war chest in support of Wyatt and bankrolled the disputed convention. Many Republicans said that was a terrible use of cash. When including independent expenditures, the Senate GOP would ultimately be outspent in two districts which flipped, SD10 and SD13.

When the disputed nomination was appealed up to RPV’s State Central Committee, Ryer spent weeks in June whipping votes against Peace and building support for a resolution declaring Wyatt to be the retroactive nominee. None of that wasted time would do anything to help hold Republican majorities.

In the 97th, Peace spent $404,960 in his unsuccessful bid to fend off Norment’s challenger, while Wyatt spent $46,600 securing the nomination.

That wasted $451,560 would have gone a long way to helping Republican challengers in neighboring Henrico County, where Garrison CowardMary Margaret Kastelberg, and GayDonna Vandergriff were all outspent and lost to Democrats. In total, those three GOP challengers spent $1,537,781 to the Democrats’ $2,021,631, leaving a Republican deficit of $483,850 – nearly all of which could have been erased without the nasty fight in the neighboring 97th.

Between the 28th and 97th districts, Republicans would ultimately waste $1,281,296 running circular firing squads, with the full blessing of Senate leadership, including Norment’s lieutenant, Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover).

So much for Norment doing everything in his power to hold the GOP majorities.

The Gun Control Fiasco

Norment had spent his spring using caucus resources purity testing Cox’s Republicans, supposedly as an expression of “conservative principles.”

Tommy’s newfound conservative streak was a bit puzzling to those who knew him and his record. Over his career, the consummate compromiser holds a 69 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union – the worst rating of any Republican in the Senate.

On May 31, a mass shooter claimed the lives of 12 innocent victims in the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. In response, Gov. Northam called for the General Assembly to convene in special session on July 9 to consider a litany of Democratic proposals for stricter gun control.

Days later, Norment floated new restrictions on magazine capacity, reported the Virginia Gazette. His announcement greatly pleased anti-gun Democrats.

“An extended magazine is optical, but does it change the outcome, I’m not sure, but it’s something the citizens like this would say at least it’s an incremental effort to do something,” Norment said. “At least that is an issue that it’s very easy to resolve.”

“I think he was listening,” Lori Haas, Virginia director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told the  Washington Post. “This issue is not going away.”

Conservative groups began mobilizing opposition to Norment immediately, launching a pressure campaign though digital media backed up with hundreds of thousands of emails and robocalls to conservative voters. In response, Norment remained quiet – for good reason.

On the eve of the special session, Norment filed gun control legislation, catching many Republicans and his fellow senators off guard.

Hours before session convened, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a state gun rights group, blasted out an email to their members with a subject line warning, “Senator Tommy Norment stabs gun owners in the back!” Earlier, Norment had falsely told the VCDL they had nothing to worry about.

“Republican Senator Tommy Norment has betrayed gun owners by introducing two gun-control bills,” the group wrote.

On the morning of July 9, Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin), a gun rights supporter from rural Southside, resigned his position as majority whip in protest of Norment blindsiding the caucus, saying members were unaware of his plans or any deals he cut with Democrats. Stanley would have nothing to do with Norment’s push, calling it a “great betrayal.”

“We do not have a narrative that says Republicans came here with policy and not politics,” Stanley said on the John Fredericks Show. “Instead, I think you used the word ‘cave’ – the front page headlines of every newspaper this morning was ‘GOP majority leader drops anti-gun measure.’ We’ve had emails going around saying Tommy Norment is working with Governor Northam and this is what’s going to happen and he’s going to take our Second Amendment rights away, and we all were telling our people, and I’m sure Bill [DeSteph] was saying the same thing: never happen, never happen, never happen. Well it looks like it might have happened.”

Stanley called Norment’s bill, “… the governor’s proposal on steroids.” He also referenced Norment blindsiding his own caucus. Republican senators said Tommy told his members to deny that any deal was in the works, leaving them passing false information along to their own constituents who opposed gun control legislation. Republican senators who told their constituents that no Republican gun control was in the works were left with egg on their faces.

Norment would later apologize to his caucus over his mishandling of the matter, reported the AP.

Following the fiasco, with his leadership position weakened, Tommy was ready to pack up and get out of town. The special session was adjourned by leadership after only 90 minutes, which proved fortunate for the embattled Norment, who sources say was worried about a challenge to his leadership. Previously, he was nearly dethroned in 2015 following a conservative insurgency led by former Senator Tom Garrett (R-Buckingham). He didn’t want it to happen again.

The early adjournment engineered to protect leadership frustrated many Republican lawmakers like Stanley and Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach), who were looking forward to debate after having submitted thoughtful bills to address gun violence which did not run afoul of the Second Amendment. Stanley submitted six bills. Norment’s cut-and-run maneuver prevented debate on any of them.

Whether you agree with moderation on guns or not is beside the point. Norment’s failed leadership took a critical messaging moment and turned it into a three-ring circus which hurt Republicans across Virginia. He blindsided his own caucus then cut his losses and ran out of town, leaving Democrats with their potent talking point about “adjourning after 90 minutes.”

Norment is Driven by Ego, not Record or Results

So far this year, Norment has worked hard to get on everyone’s bad side. In the spring, he kicked off a campaign of purity testing against Cox’s delegates which divided the party and wasted nearly $1.3 million which was badly needed by underfunded Republicans in battleground races. In the summer, he went weak on gun rights which demotivated the base and created a fiasco playing right into Democratic hands.

In the span of a few months, he’s been all over the place – a strong sign that neither ideology nor tactics were driving his decision making.

Why would the Republican senator rated worst by the American Conservative Union suddenly appoint himself chief of the purity police? In one word: payback.

Former Del. Tom Gear (R-Hampton) had this to say about Norment, reported by the Daily Press, in recollection over a fight about judges: “If he doesn’t get his way, he’ll pay you back,” Gear said. “He’ll do whatever he’s got to do to get his way.”

“He’s conned the Republican caucus,” Gear continued.

Richmond insiders know all too well how Tommy operates. Unfortunately, too few regular voters hear the tales of his ego which permeate every inch of the halls of the General Assembly. So, in short, Norment wasn’t really interested in sending a message over Cox’s support for Medicaid expansion – he was more interested in scoring personal points against Cox because the speaker took the lead in those negotiations and overshadowed his own efforts.

That’s not leadership, that’s ego. In a critical election year, that’s treachery.

Consider Tommy’s record on taxes.

Norment backed Gov. Mark Warner’s $1.5 billion blockbuster tax hike in 2004 (HB5018) and also voted to double the gas tax in Northern Virginia earlier that year (SB458). He supported another $1 billion tax hike on gas and vehicle registration two years later (SB708). In 2010, he supported implementing an Internet sales tax (SB660).

Three years later, he took a leadership role in 2013’s $5.9 billion tax hike (HB2313), the largest in Virginia’s history. In 2018, he hiked gas taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads yet again (SB896), while also supporting Gov. Northam’s plan to raise taxes and give the money to Northern Virginia’s grossly mismanaged Metro system. He even slapped his own constituents with a special sales tax for the Historic Triangle region (SB942).

Does anyone honestly believe he was “standing on principle” against Medicaid expansion?

On immigration, Norment voted to allow illegal immigrants to access in-state tuition discounts (SB1204, 2007) – a bill heavily favored by Democrats, despite tricky language designed to make voters think otherwise – and also voted with Democrats to kill a bill requiring sheriffs to check the immigration status of all arrestees brought into their jails (HB1060).

On life, he refused to vote for a bill defunding Planned Parenthood and prohibiting taxpayer funding for abortion (HB2264).

Routinely ranked among the weakest Republicans on gun rights, he has supported bans on private sales at gun shows (SB1257), a ban on concealed carry in restaurants (SB1035SB334), a limitation on the number of guns a citizen may buy (HB940), and gun-free zones where law-abiding citizens with carry permits are prohibited from defending themselves (SB79SB493).

Norment voted to increase the minimum wage (SB1327), allow police to pull drivers over for not wearing seatbelts (SB9), give taxpayer-funded cash welfare to convicted drug felons (SB835), ban plastic bags (SB1103), and most stunningly, he authored legislation weakening penalties for producing child pornography (SB1560).

Yet, somehow, Norment finds the nerve to lecture Delegates Bob Thomas and Chris Peace about their supposed sins against conservatism over one vote.

That is not leadership. That is massive, ego-driven hypocrisy. Congratulations, Tommy, you got your petty revenge.

Thanks in large part to your efforts at dividing the party in a critical election year, Kirk Cox is no longer Speaker of the House, and you no longer have to worry he might overshadow you following your own Senate loss.

Well done.

Norment’s Untenable Position

Following the devastating losses, infighting, and mishandling of the special session, Norment’s grip over power is starting to weaken.

Moderate Republicans are angry with his decision to squander time and financial resources fighting with Cox’s delegates. Norment’s decisions contributed to the waste of nearly $1.3 million spent on infighting, the outcome of which help flip the 28th District into Democratic hands.

The House, divided against itself by Norment, didn’t stand.

What about the $160,000 per year as a “legal adviser” and professor at his alma mater, William and Mary, where he taught one class to earn that outsized paycheck. Although former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was successful in having him replaced, Norment collected that paycheck just long enough to maximize his state pension, calculated using his highest rate of pay at W&M but applied to his three decades of service in the legislature. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Leadership elections are right around the corner. Shortly, the defeated Senate GOP will meet to choose a minority leader to lead the caucus for the next four years. By now, you might be wondering how Norment keeps getting elected if he has a long record of offending just about every person and faction within the party.

The answer is simple: Norment is generous in his financial support of senate members. Senators have been reluctant to upset that apple cart because they need the cash. And his district is reliable, to put it mildly.

Well, not anymore.

With the Republican Party of Virginia effectively sidelined for years to come, it doesn’t need cash to recover – not that Norment would be able to raise it anymore, regardless. Tommy has lost power. Favor with him no longer matters. Lobbyists will either find a friend in Dick Saslaw, or their agenda won’t go anywhere. Norment’s approval isn’t needed any longer.

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