Sunday, October 14, 2007

GOP central committee decision a confession of weakness

I confess, I didn't know what the Republican Party of Virginia State Central Committee would do about the selection of a candidate for the U.S. Senate. It had two options, a convention open to a tiny fraction of Virginia Republicans--the so-called party elite--or a primary election open to all Republicans, interested independents, and perhaps even a wily Democrat or two. The Republicans chose the convention, and with it, almost certain defeat.

They had their reasons for doing so, no doubt--let's see if we can tease them out.

First, it's worth looking at what a primary election would have given the Republicans. First and foremost, it would have given them a lot of publicity--not free publicity, mind you, but a lot of publicity all them same.
"It's battle-testing our candidate for the type of campaign they have to make in a general election," said David Avella, a Davis supporter and member of the central committee.[1]
There would have been rallies, speeches, and debates, and Virginia's political press would have been compelled to cover them all. There would have been commercials, mailers and yard signs, and Virginians would have seen and reflected on all three. None of those things will happen now.

Jim Gilmore--a recent convert to the idea of conventions--seems happy at least:
Gilmore had argued in favor of a convention, in which county committees select delegates, because it would save the candidates money and help energize the GOP base for the fall campaign. Strategists say it costs candidates about $4 million to compete in a primary, compared with about $1 million to compete in a convention. Gilmore said he feared a primary could leave the eventual nominee broke by summer, when Warner is likely to begin advertising.[2]
Gilmore's preference surprises no one: he has no money but he does have a lot of conservative support. Yesterday's vote in favor of a convention was a victory of sorts for Gilmore and his supporters, but a loss for the Republican Party of Virginia.

Now the nominating process goes behind the scenes: beyond the reach of ordinary Republicans voters and grassroots Republican activists. There will be no Draft Pace movement, not that such a movement ever had much of a chance. Likewise, a Tom Davis nomination is now very unlikely. Davis is perceived as moderate within his own party, and the Republican Party of Virginia considers the word "moderate" to be a dirty word. Davis is not so well known outside of Northern Virginia, but he at least had the opportunity to start with something of a fresh slate, to define himself for the voters.

No, the nomination will go to an insider, most likely to Gilmore. Gilmore starts with no money, little popularity, and a public image that is already well-defined and thoroughly negative. But Gilmore wants the nomination and he has friends in the right places to deliver it to him.

I've seen decisions like this one before. I've seen my own party too afraid to take risks and mount a real challenge. The Republican Party of Virginia made a fatal admission yesterday: it is too weak to take the strain of a truly competitive primary election.

Having just been through a brutal primary election myself last year I know that their fear is justified. There are still hard feelings in the Democratic Party over the Webb-Miller contest of last year, and we at least have victory to console ourselves. A Republican primary would shred their party. The "Bloggers 4 Sayre," or something very like it, would re-emerge. The winner of a Republican primary would be unable to rely on the support of the loser's partisans.

I've seen this kind of compromise before. Gilmore will get the nomination because he can lose without embarrassing the Republican Party, and without fatally dividing it.

No comments: