On Saturday, the Washington Post reported on an unexpected event taking place in Virginia’s Seventh District headlined by that district’s former congressman. WaPo must have had a blast wording the headline, although they could also be praised for simply reporting the facts straight:
They deliberately chose a pic of Cantor’s face expressing “I’m none-too-pleased to be the target of this surprise celebrity roast,” but Cantor actually was the headliner, offering tips for how to once again lead Virginia establishment Republicans to victory:
According to organizers, Cantor gave an invitation-only crowd of more than 100 people tips on how to frame their message to voters as Republicans prepare to defend their slim majority in the state Senate this year. Activists from the establishment wing of the party are also focused on delivering the swing state of Virginia for the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.
I would expect WaPo to be putting quotations around “establishment,” yet even they no longer see a need to expound on the term and how it has come to represent the left wing of the GOP. This is of primary importance: even the influential paper of the Democratic establishment, one not known for its sharp insight regarding the GOP rift, now identifies — without further explanation — Eric Cantor and his supporters as the left wing, inside-the-Beltway element of the Republican Party. He is colloquially known as being in opposition to the Tea Party, conservative wing of the GOP.
These facts on the ground are why last Saturday’s event struck both local and national observers as incomprehensible. The evening was described as a kickoff event for a newly formed statewide group calling itself the … Virginia Conservative Network.
Everyone, everyone knows what happened in 2014. Cantor was defeated by a challenge from the right. No one in America — let alone in Virginia’s Seventh — who follows national politics believes that Cantor had the conservative platform in that race. Most observers also know that Cantor, under the strategic guidance of campaign manager and Sopranos extra Ray Allen, moved Heaven and Earth to portray his opponent as not only an establishment Republican, but even as a liberal. The tactic failed dramatically, both by offering extra name recognition to Dave Brat and by underestimating the District’s knowledge of Cantor’s by-then extensive record.
Wrote WaPo, in yet another sentence that could be accurately classified either as “wise-ass” or as “straight reporting”:
The day-long meeting of the Virginia Conservative Network featured a who’s who of establishment Republicans in the mold of Cantor, many of whom are frustrated with the party’s loss of all five statewide offices in recent years.
In other words, the advisors who encouraged Cantor to fabricate his conservative bonafides for the purposes of defeating a conservative challenger, which resulted in a historic, history-making loss, have chosen to double down on the same strategy as a means for returning the establishment to power.
“Virginia Conservative Network” couldn’t even fool a liberal WaPo reporter four words into writing her headline. Yet it looks like it’s once more unto the breach for these ill-advised establishment Republicans.
The remainder of the Washington Post article certainly didn’t help the establishment’s cause. The Post undersold the facts mentioned in their subhead: Dave Brat’s supporters didn’t merely “feel” shut out from the meeting. At least one was physically kept from entering, despite being invited into the room by two other attendees. Wrote WaPo:
Ron Headlund, a Brat volunteer, said he was blocked from the suburban Richmond DoubleTree hotel where the meeting was held.
That doesn’t remotely capture the pettiness of what actually occurred. Ron Hedlund was physically kept from entering the room by none other than Linwood Cobb, the former Seventh District GOP chairman who lost his seat entirely due to his tactics in furthering Eric Cantor’s career. “He grabbed my arm and stopped me,” Ron Hedlund told me. “I was motioned to by two acquaintances within the room, told to come in and join the meeting, and Cobb grabbed my arm and wouldn’t allow it.”
Ironically, and of course, WaPo actually quoted Cobb discussing the Virginia Conservative Network’s supposed “big tent” aspirations:
Cantor was joined by Linwood Cobb, his right-hand man in the Seventh District Republican Committee whose ouster foreshadowed Cantor’s own defeat.
Rep. Brat and his supporters were not invited, Cobb said, because the meeting was not focused on the district but on a statewide effort to expand the party by reaching out to minorities and other groups who might not normally vote Republican.
“The statewide aspect of it is a big factor of what we wanted to start working toward,” Cobb said in a phone interview. “We are not going to win statewide [by] just talking to conservative Republicans or just tea party Republicans. We’ve got to go beyond that to win.”
So the meeting “was not focused on the [Seventh] district,” it was focused on Districts 1 through 6 and 8 through 11 or something. Although it was held within the Seventh District, and the former Seventh District congressman gave the keynote, and the former Seventh District chairman played bouncer with a supporter of the current Seventh District leadership. Local conservative political blog The Bull Elephant summed up the circus:
Given the focus on “winning elections again” and “party unity,” it seems more than a little uncouth not to invite the guy who just wrote the book on how conservatives win elections. We suppose “unity” must have an alternate definition of which we are unaware.
And that particular concept of unity is what is troubling about this weekend’s meeting. For instance, one of the workshop sessions was entitled, “Reclaiming the Elephant.” There is a lot of meaning packed into that title, but just on the surface there is an implication that something that is rightfully theirs has been taken, and needs to be seized back. We’re sure a lot of this came with window dressing about tending to the Republican brand, etc., but underneath it all, the thing being reclaimed is simply power for its own sake. If it was truly about messaging and electoral temperament, how can one fault (and conspicuously exclude) a man who won a landslide campaigning — quite literally — on the Virginia Republican Creed?
The clear implication is that the 7th District Congressman and his ilk have stolen something, and Cantor and his gang plan to take it back.
Ron Hedlund later posted about his experience on Facebook:
Early Saturday morning of the CVN event, my phone starting buzzing with calls, text messages and voicemails from conservatives across the district asking me if I was aware of this meeting and wanting to know if I had, in fact, been invited. I was in absolute shock to learn that even the congressman himself was unaware of such an event …
While on a conference call with several concerned conservatives, I began to fathom the gravity of the situation and immediately started dressing and determined to make a trip across town to find out what this gathering was all about …
Turns out a few other concerned conservatives came by out of curiosity. Some, like myself, actually asked to pay the $20 registration fee and were denied entrance. They were told it was by invitation only.
When I was asked by more than one attendee to join them in the conference, I was assured the event was open to Republicans. I explained the situation of earlier denials, but they insisted I join them. My friend Ken Davis and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement: “Sure, let’s give it a shot.”
We followed Korey Stuart and Bill Thomas upstairs. As Bill Thomas was engaged in conversation with Linwood Cobb, I passed by toward the registration table and said hello to Mr. Cobb. At that very moment, his eyes grew as big as saucers and he reached out and grabbed my right forearm and jerked it toward him. All the while, he was angrily telling me that I was not allowed in. I turned to Bill Thomas, who was visibly shaken, and said, “See, I told you they would not allow me in.”
Bill Thomas was most apologetic and remained shaken. Linwood moved around in front of me and stood in the doorway to prevent my passage. Attempts and rational discussion were met with a stone face and absolute silence. Others inside including Korey Stuart were witness to Mr. Cobb’s antics.
I turned to walk away and sit in the lobby while others denied entrance came to watch those streaming in and out of the Virginia Conservative Network. I should point out that not all those in attendance were privy to the antics employed by the Cantor organization.
Delegate John O’Bannon came out to apologize for the strong-arm tactics and for not opening up the meeting to others. So too did Henrico County Chairman Don Boswell. He did not think this is how to unite the party and win elections. I was heartened to know that not all those suckered into Ray Allen’s trap wanted to play a part in it.
So what really happened last Saturday? Obviously Virginia’s establishment GOP is looking to reorganize and reclaim its relevance, and further, to tear down the actual conservative wing of the party. Part of their strategy is to yet again pretend to not be the establishment. Many of the local GOP members invited to attend would not have come had they known the true circumstances, so that tactic was partially successful, at least until they saw the grabby bouncer.
But what does a reorganization of the establishment entail? Is there an end goal in mind?
I am hearing from several sources that the content of the meeting also including much discussion of 2017, not 2016.
In 2017, Virginia will be selecting its new governor, and this meeting on Saturday was reportedly less about regrouping the establishment and more about establishing the groundwork for a possible 2017 Eric Cantor run for Virginia governor.
This isn’t an out-of-the-blue development: back when Cantor vacated his seat several months early to join investment bank Moelis & Co., Politico reported the following regarding Cantor’s future plans, as per an unnamed aide:
Though the possibility of a political future seems unlikely now, Cantor still wants to leave open the possibility of running for office. He has said as much to players in New York and Washington. Cantor will be responsible for opening an office in Washington for the firm and Moelis is also hiring Kristi Way, his longtime Richmond-based chief of staff.
“It’s no secret Eric wants to leave that door open, but that’s not his focus now,” said one former senior Cantor aide.
Apparently, sources believe that, just five months into his position at Moelis, that is his focus now.
Further, the Virginia establishment is reportedly ready to go with a challenger to Dave Brat for 2016, though not one with a particularly enviable image in Virginia currently. Sources say former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling is even closer to announcing as a primary challenger to Brat in 2016 than Cantor is to announcing a run for governor.
In 2013, the GOP devastatingly lost a shot at the governorship when Ken Cuccinelli was narrowly defeated by Democrat Terry McAuliffe. The Virginia GOP establishment’s scorched-earth tactics with the conservative wing of the party was to blame. The conservative Cuccinelli didn’t get significant support from key members of party (not to mention the national GOP), and perhaps the biggest culprit was Bolling.
In an article titled “VA GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling Undermined Cuccinelli Campaign”, reporter Michael Patrick Leahy writes:
Virginia’s incumbent Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling helped Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly defeat Republican Ken Cuccinelli in several ways. Not only did Bolling refuse to endorse Cuccinelli, he also transferred $446,674 remaining in his gubernatorial campaign committee to his newly formed political action committee, the Virginia Mainstream Project, which spent no money to support Cuccinelli.
Bolling’s new political action committee was ostensibly established to support Republican candidates running for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2013 and the Virginia State Senate in 2015. Its relative inactivity, however, suggests it was more likely a place for Bolling to park his 2013 campaign cash as he worked behind the scenes to undermine Cuccinelli in hopes that he himself would become the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2017. It secured only two additional donations of $500, and spent a mere $45,760 on nine Delegate candidates in 2013, leaving it with a healthy bank account of $399,993 in cash unspent on election day.
Nothing says “big tent,” or “expanding the party” as per Linwood Cobb’s quote regarding the new organization, like sandbagging your party’s candidate in hopes of making a future run yourself. Now, sources say Bolling is apparently instead interested in taking a run at Brat, and this nascent Virginia Conservative Network is the first step in once again failing to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, anywhere, not even the Washington Post’s.
The rumblings are that Cantor and Bolling and Allen and Cobb want the Virginia GOP back, are using the same tactics that got them removed from power last time, and are demonstrating the same behavior that points to a governing motive of power rather than public service. None of it makes any sense strategically, politically, ideologically, or otherwise. Establishment’s gotta establishment, I suppose.