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Republicans differ over party’s future

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

RICHMOND—Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and a pair of conservative activists agree that his decision Wednesday to drop out of next year’s governor’s race reflects something about the state Republican Party.

They just don’t agree on what.

Bolling’s decision is evidence of a schism between the party’s moderate wing and its conservative activists. He said it became clear he couldn’t win the party’s nomination for governor against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, in large part because the party’s leadership committee—  newly stacked in June with conservatives who favor Cuccinelli—changed the nominating process from a primary to a convention.

But some conservatives say Bolling’s decision is simply sour grapes from an “establishment” Republican upset that “grass-roots” activists won control of the party.

In a press conference Thursday, Bolling said he’s a loyal Republican, but he described frustration with a nominating process that’s limited to a set number of party activists. Conventions tend to attract more conservative party members than primaries do. Bolling said he thought—and still thinks—he could win a general election. But he didn’t think he—perceived as the relative moderate in the race, compared to Cuccinelli—could win his own party’s nomination through a convention.

“It was very frustrating to me.  I thought it was a bad decision” to move to a convention, Bolling said. “Because if we want to grow our party over time, we need to involve more people in the party with more diverse views. You do that in primaries where you have two-  or three-hundred-thousand people voting, as opposed to these closed party conventions.”

But at least two conservatives said Thursday that Bolling’s decision to drop out of the race—and especially his statements that he won’t endorse Cuccinelli—bespeak a bitterness among establishment Republicans who don’t like the fact that grass-roots activists now control the party’s apparatus.

Jamie Radtke—a tea party leader who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate earlier this year—and Stafford Supervisor Susan Stimpson (who is a candidate for the Republicans’ lieutenant governor nomination), both said separately Thursday that Bolling should support the party’s nominee, and that doing otherwise is emblematic of a “take our ball and go home” mindset among establishment Republicans.

Both women described a struggle between grass-roots activists and establishment Republicans.

The grass roots, they said, played by the party’s rules to gain control over the party’s leadership earlier this year, when more of them got elected in local GOP parties to the committee that runs the state party.

In a post on her Facebook page, Stimpson said Bolling’s statement that he won’t support Cuccinelli is “simply indefensible and destroys his legacy as lieutenant governor.”

“This is the same ‘burn the house down’ approach that the establishment has threatened us with in the past when they don’t get their way,” Stimpson said.

Radtke said establishment members of the party have long held a double-standard—they told conservative activists to accept establishment nominees, but refuse to accept conservative ones if they don’t like the results.

“There’s really a battle for the heart and soul of the party,” Radtke said. “And now the establishment has decided they don’t like it.”

She said Bolling has essentially “said he’s leaving the party” by refusing to back its likely nominee, Cuccinelli.

Stimpson and Radtke said Republicans shouldn’t interpret election losses as evidence that the party needs to shy away from conservative values.

But Bolling said he thinks Republicans need to have a conversation about what they want their party to be.

The party, he said, needs to recognize that it can’t win without appealing to independents.

“We have to realize, and this is a message I’ve been trying to get across to my fellow Republicans for a few years now, there aren’t enough Republicans in Virginia to elect anybody to anything,” Bolling said, adding that the same applies to Democrats.

Moderate independents, he said, swing elections in Virginia, and Republicans must appeal to them, not just to the party’s own activists.

“They don’t care about political ideology.  They just want leaders who will work together to solve problems and get things done,” Bolling said. “We’ve got to decide, do we want to just be a party that engages in the great ideological debates of the day, or do we want to be a party that actually wins elections, earns the right to lead, and then leads effectively.”

For now, Bolling said, he and his wife are regrouping and deciding where his political future might lie.

It’s not in a third term as lieutenant governor; Bolling said he “just wouldn’t be comfortable” with that “under the current political circumstances.”

He also said he has no “current intentions” to run for governor as an independent.

What he does intend to do is to make the most of the fact that he now has little politically to lose by speaking his mind.

“I’m looking forward to the ability to speak out maybe more freely, with a more independent voice on some of those issues and hopefully play a leadership role in having a candid conversation about what we need to do to solve those problems,” Bolling said. “I won’t be a partisan over the next year, because I’m not engaged in a campaign, and it gives me an opportunity to speak more freely and more independently to a lot of these important issues facing the state, and frankly I think the state needs that kind of leadership.”

Chelyen Davis:  540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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