The Homestead Resort, Hot Springs, Va. December 2013
It's Christmas in Virginia's western mountains and, as it has for centuries, The Homestead Resort is decked out for the season. This weekend it has braced itself for an invasion of Republicans from throughout the Commonwealth. Vehicles pulling under the portico to unload laptops and overnight bags sport candidate bumper stickers and specialty "G" series license plates.
It's the celebration of the 30th annual Donald Huffman Republican Advance. After the thumping Republicans took in November, the big celebration for the big anniversary is overshadowed by a party that seems to have lost its way in four short years.
In 2009 the atmosphere at the Advance was jubilant as we met in Williamsburg and celebrated sweeping the top three spots for the first time in 12 years, and the fact that we had found our footing in new media and other areas after the 2008 loss to Barack Obama and the Democrats. Bob McDonnell had swept into office as governor in an historic landslide by running on "Bob's for Jobs," helping to boost the GOP spirit after some crucial losses between 2005 and 2008. By winning the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general positions, Republicans were poised to take the leadership reins in the state and ride the wave of popularity after Obama's disappointing first year in office.
Before the 2009 election, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling had taken one for the team and avoided an internal blood bath that the Republican Party of Virginia didn't need. He stepped aside so McDonnell could run unopposed for governor and, instead, sought re-election as lieutenant governor while temporarily setting his goal for governor on the shelf. With an ambitious Ken Cuccinelli winning the attorney general spot, some nervous politicos asked the "Cooch" if he planned to run for governor in 2013 and his answer over and over was "no." It seemed the good blood in the Republican Party would continue beyond 2009.
But something happened between 2009 and 2013. Cuccinelli, who had said in an AG debate at The Homestead in 2008 that he would run for two terms as attorney general to avoid challenging Bolling -- but later tried to explain it away by basically saying it depended on what the meaning of "is," is -- announced one day before the 2011 Advance that he was running for governor.
A shock went through the Virginia GOP or, at least, a shock went through part of the GOP. The Cuccinelli supporters were enthusiastic at this announcement that came as a total surprise to not only Governor McDonnell but also to Lieutenant Governor Bolling who was in Florida at the time attending a national lieutenant governors meeting.
I was sitting in the Great Hall of The Homestead two years ago today when the Bolling family arrived. It was barely 24 hours after they had heard of the challenge from the GOP attorney general -- reportedly not from the mouth of the AG but through the news. As they walked past on the way to their room with serious looks on their faces, we watched as the Cuccinelli supporters stood at the front door of the Homestead's Great Hall in Cuccinelli t-shirts and tried to sticker everyone with Cuccinelli lapels.
The message was clear: it had been planned and calculated for the best shock value. Mission accomplished. Not only had Bill Bolling been slammed upside the head but so had thousands of long-time Republican volunteers who were being out-muscled and removed from the GOP rolls.
Six months later the majority of the eleven congressional districts saw a turnover of leadership and, a few months later, the newly-minted Cuccinelli state central committee voted to overturn the already-voted-on primary for 2013 and changed it to a closed convention. That's how we got what happened in Richmond in May. Meanwhile, local committees throughout the state saw a turnover as Cuccinelli supporters won key leadership positions and purged long-time volunteers.
The final results of it all came last month when Republicans lost the top three spots to the Democrats leaving many Republicans in disbelief. Historically in Virginia the gubernatorial office goes to Republicans when Democrats own the White House, and vice versa. Many touted Democrat Terry McAuliffe as a poor candidate. The GOP win was supposed to be a sure thing. What had happened? A short four years earlier we had swept all three offices on a deliriously happy election night in downtown Richmond. This year the candidates weren't even together on election night. With Cuccinelli at the helm, both E.W. Jackson and Mark Obenshain went down (Democrat Mark Herring won the AG race with 165 votes so a recount will take place later this month).
And so we all gather at The Homestead, not to celebrate victory but to lick our wounds. And try to figure out where we go from here. And how to heal the civil war raging within the party.
But the visions of previous wins dance in my head -- the years when George W. Bush was president and we won with his example of an inclusive party that reached out to all. The Republican Party is at a crossroads. We can either adjust with the changing times ... or become irrelevant.
Photo by Lynn R. Mitchell
December 5, 2013