The Rise and Fall of the Republican Party and Takeover of The Democratic Party in Virginia

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By Bruce Meyer

The 2019 Election cycle has come and gone.  The Democrats outspent, out-organized and turned out more voters than the Republicans.  They achieved great success.  Voter turnout in Virginia Beach averaged a little over 40%.  In the Richmond area, it averaged approximately 50%.  An off-year election typically averages approximately 20-30%.

The Republicans lost 6 seats in the House of Delegates and 2 seats in the Virginia Senate, giving the Democrats control of the Governor’s Mansion, the House and Senate for the first time since 1993.  That is 27 years! The big question being asked is “What Happened”?

This is not a simple question.  There were numerous factors that contributed to the Republicans losing control.  Also, this did not occur overnight.  When a Party loses control of a Chamber, let alone both Chambers, it is the result of a foundational shift that typically begins years earlier, as is in the case of the Republican Party of Virginia.  Philosophy, messaging, finance and mechanics of the organization are the pillars of a Political Party’s foundation, and if the State Party is not firing on all cylinders, then those pillars will crumble statewide.

Let’s dive in and discover when the cracks in the foundation began.  The Democratic Party had controlled Virginia since after Reconstruction.  In 1994, when the Republican Party began their ascent to controlling Virginia, they had just elected Governor George Allen who ran on a message of change and optimism. Governor Allen was tough on crime, abolished parole, fought for lower taxes and always had a message of positivity and inclusivity.  Governor Jim Gilmore was elected in 1997 on a platform of continuing Governor Allen’s programs and a promise of eliminating the Car Tax.  In 1999, the Republicans, for the first time since Reconstruction, controlled all three- the House, Senate, and the Executive Branch.  The Republican Party had peaked and was firing on all cylinders. 

In June 2001, the Democrats ran Mark Warner for Governor, who is charismatic and also had a message of optimism.  He beat the Republican nominee, Attorney General Mark Early; however, the Republicans still controlled the offices of Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General and the General Assembly.  In fact, the Republicans had almost reached a “super majority” in the House of Delegates.  In 2009 the Republicans elected for Governor then Attorney General Bob McDonnell on the positive message of “Bob’s for Jobs”, and once again, controlled the Executive and the Legislative branches.   In 2013, entrepreneur Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected as Governor and the Republicans briefly lost control of the Senate.  In 2015, the Republican Party regained the Senate and held both Chambers.  In 2017, the Democrats nearly captured both Chambers, but came up short by one vote (literally).  Today in 2019, the Democrats organized well and brought in millions of dollars from California and New York and picked up a few more seats and now control both the Executive and Legislative branches.  

Some political pundits are quick to say the Republicans lost control of Virginia due to President Trump being so unpopular.  While it is easy to blame one person or event, the actual decline of the Republican Party of Virginia began in 2006 with the election of Democrat Tim Kaine to the U.S. Senate and then in 2008 with Democrat Mark Warner winning the U.S. Senate Seat held since 1978 by Republican John Warner.  In 2009 Bob McDonnell was the last Republican elected as Governor.  In 2008, Virginia had 8 Republicans and 3 Democrats who were members of Congress.  Fast forward, Virginia now has 4 Republicans and 7 Democrat Congressmen.

So, what caused the rise and fall of the Republican Party of Virginia?  In 2008, the Republican Party of Virginia had experienced a political seismic shift.  No, it was not the historic election of President Barak Obama, rather, it was the incursion of Libertarians, motivated by Congressman Ron Paul who was running for the Republican nomination for President.  The Ron Paul Revolution washed over the Republican Party of Virginia like a tsunami.  The traditional “Old Guard” Republicans as well as the Religious Conservatives were pushed aside from Party Leadership all throughout the Commonwealth.  While Ron Paul did not prevail, his followers in Virginia continued with their “purge” of so called RINOS (Republicans in Name Only).  The only problem was they considered anyone who had been part of the proud, winning legacy of the Republican Party as Rinos.  It did not matter if you were Conservative or Moderate.  In 2010, the Tea Party Movement was born.  This was an organically grown group of citizens who were concerned about government takeover of healthcare.  Unfortunately, this group was very new to the political process and several opportunistic leaders took advantage of their inexperience and lack of history in the Republican Party and used them to continue the purge of the “Old Guard” Republicans.  This infighting would last until 2016 with the election of President Trump.  The damage was done and the Republican Party of Virginia was but a shadow of its former self.

Back in 1993, when Governor George Allen was elected, the Republican Party of Virginia (RPV) had a full time staff of 13. In 1993, the RPV was in charge of building and maintaining the mechanics of the Republican Party.  Precinct, Fundraising and Leadership training were conducted all throughout the Commonwealth.  RPV had regional staff members stationed throughout Virginia.  RPV’s budget in the 1990’s was in the millions per year.  Local city and county Republican Parties were thriving and active.  Fast forward, no training programs, no staff, no fundraising and RPV can barely keep their lights on.

While in the 1990’s you did have factions in the Republican Party; however, at the end of the day, everyone came together and supported the Republican Nominee.

Now, the infighting is personal and public (thanks to the internet).  Party unity is not what it once was and Party membership is at all-time lows.  All of this dysfunction impacts how the Republican Party can recruit great candidates, properly present a positive message, raise money and organize their precinct and get out the vote operations.  

Perhaps the biggest issue the Republican Party of Virginia has is self-inflicted wounds. Case in point, some of you may have received a “Score Card” mailer from the Republican Party.  This Score Card graded your participation and listed the participation of your neighbors including their names, in voting in Republican Primaries.  I spoke to numerous people who were upset about their privacy being invaded as well as receiving grades of C’s and D’s.  Our races are decided between Democratic and Republican candidates by super-thin percentages.  This one, unintelligent, mail-piece depressed some Republican voter turnout.  This was enough to cause some races to flip, such as incumbent Republican Delegate Chris Stolle of Virginia Beach.  He lost by just 27 votes!

If the Republican Party of Virginia does not clean house and install new and innovative leadership, then 2020 and 2021 will be a disaster for them.  The one consequence of 2019 is now the Democrats will control redistricting.    

My Father taught history at Old Dominion University.  He would always remind me that “Those who do not learn from history, will be doomed to repeat it”.  My take for the Republican Party if they wish to win, is to learn their history and try to repeat its successes.  Time will tell.

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