Politics

05.01.14

The GOP Establishment Turns a ‘Firehose’ on Virginia Tea Partiers

Turning the insurgents’ own tactics against them, the party used a ‘firehose primary’ of rabid voters to give the congressional nomination to an insider’s insider.

Meet the latest exhibit in the Republican elite’s crusade to wrest the party from the sticky fingers of its Tea Party rebels: newly minted Virginia House nominee Barbara Comstock.

Last Saturday, state delegate Comstock emerged victorious from her party’s nominating race to represent the 10th Congressional District. Of the six contenders, Comstock enjoyed the highest name recognition and by far the most love from the party establishment. Before her 2009 election to the state legislature, she toiled for decades in the political trenches as an aide, operative, consultant—you name it. She spent the early 1990s as a staffer to Rep. Frank Wolf (the man she now hopes to succeed), four years working for the House Committee on Government Reform (vigorously spearheading the Whitewater probe, no less), a stint doing opposition research for the Republican National Committee followed by a similar posting with Bush-Cheney 2000, a year or so running public affairs in W.’s Justice Department, and, most recently, a consulting gig with Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Comstock is the ultimate insider’s insider—a fact her primary opponents labored to use against her. But the woman is no RINO squish. Over the years, she has built up her conservative street cred. (She is, for instance, on the executive committee of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List.) And for this race she collected endorsements from such prominent right-wingers as Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and the fine folks at the American Conservatives Union.

Despite all this, and despite the purply, swingy, establishment-friendly nature of Virginia’s 10th (which includes a passel of upper-crust Beltway burbs), the race was considered fluid right up to the end, with Politico buzzing about the upset potential inherent in the peculiar process being used to choose the nominee: a firehouse primary.

For those unfamiliar with Virginia’s quirky electoral procedures, a firehouse primary is basically a condensed Election Day, in which voters are given a handful of hours to appear at a tiny number of balloting stations. In Saturday’s contest, voters had from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to hit one of 10 stations scattered across the district. (By contrast, in a regular primary, the 10th would have upwards of 180 stations.) As you might imagine, this set-up benefits candidates with highly energized voter bases—the sort of folks motivated to spend their Saturday driving across the district to stand in line at the polls.

Upon hearing of Republicans’ decision to go the firehouse direction, one’s gut reaction might be: WTF?! Who runs a democracy this way, limiting polling places and hours to ensure that nominees are crowned by a narrow band of fanatics?

But in Virginia, firehouse primaries are, in fact, more democratic—and, these days, more likely to favor an establishment candidate like Comstock—than the nominating conventions by which the state GOP has been choosing champions of late. This firehouse primary was an explicit compromise between party activists’ impulse to keep control of the nominating process and their growing sense that something had to give.

Conservative activists in Virginia typically prefer nominating conventions, in which they have an outsized say in the outcome and regular voters are cut out of the process altogether. Not that this is the official rationale for conventions. Because Virginia voters do not register by party and primaries are open to those of any political persuasion, convention proponents argue that primaries corrupt the process by letting opposition voters toy with a party’s nominee selection. Plus, they cost taxpayers money. Activists’ iron grip on the convention process is just a happy by-product.

Or not so happy, if the electorate finds the nominee unpalatable. Witness the GOP’s decision to switch from a primary to a convention for selecting its 2013 statewide slate. Instead of lieutenant governor Bill Bolling as their gubernatorial combatant, Republican voters were saddled with culture warrior extraordinaire Ken Cuccinelli. Scarier still, from the race for lieutenant governor emerged attorney, minister, and lunatic fringer E.W. Jackson, known for such trenchant political commentary as proclaiming gays “perverted,” asserting that President Obama has “Muslim sensibilities,” and insisting that liberals “have done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and slavery and Jim Crow ever did.” The nominating convention, in other words, was an exercise in poor judgment akin to Donald Sterling’s sharing his insights on race with his girlfriend.

Worse still, two months after its November thumping, the GOP suffered another convention-fueled setback, when it lost a special election for the state Senate to Democrats. In that race, the Republican vote split when a longtime Republican delegate ran as an independent challenger to convention-picked nominee John Whitbeck. The local party came off looking splintered and impotent, and the local media reported that some Republicans blamed the convention process for the loss. Later that month, when deciding how the 10th District nominee would be selected, some party leaders cited Whitbeck’s loss as argument for a more open process. “John’s defeat can be traced back to what we did wrong in the state Senate race,” said 10th District committee member Greg Stone, according to Leesburg Today.  “We have a situation here”—that is, in the Comstock race—“where a convention is probably not the way to go.” While many members advocated sticking with the convention model, it was Whitbeck himself (the committee’s chairman) who pushed to split the difference with a firehouse primary. Four months later, Comstock proved herself to have the most motivated supporters, or at least the best get-out-the-vote operation, of the bunch.

“The state of Virginia, we can be so dysfunctional on a political level when it comes to primaries. It really does make you cringe,” says Mark Corallo, a veteran Republican Party operative, Virginia denizen, and former consulting partner of Comstock’s. While he is delighted for Comstock personally, Corallo also expresses optimism about his state party: “Barbara’s winning the primary in the 10th district was a huge positive sign.”

Noting that Comstock polled 54 percent of the vote, Corallo argues, “That says a lot. That says that the people in this party in Virginia said: We want to win with a mainstream conservative. Let’s go! Let’s win in November and not keep screwing around with marginal candidates who you know can’t win.”

Virginia Republicans will have the opportunity to make a similar statement on an even larger scale next month, when they choose a challenger to Democratic senator Mark Warner. The decision is once more being made at a convention. (Gulp!) But this time the party favorite is Ed Gillespie, like Comstock a longtime Washington insider—though an even better known one. (Gillespie has served as everything from RNC chairman to White House counselor, along with lots of lobbying gigs and even a stint as head of the Virginia GOP.) “It’s the same thing! They are very similar,” says Corallo, who argues that both Comstock and Gillespie are simultaneously conservative and electable.

So while last week’s firehouse primary may seem like an absurd and undemocratic way to choose a congressional candidate, for Virginia Republicans, it arguably constitutes progress. And Comstock’s victory offers clear evidence that the GOP establishment is clawing its way back in the Old Dominion.