Virginia’s 6th District is Republican. In 2016, it went for Bob Goodlatte for the US House of Representatives by a margin of 66% to 33% and for Trump for President by 53% to 42%.
BUT, in the volatile politics of the 2018 mid-terms, the Democrats need not despair of capturing the House seat. Republican nominee Ben Cline should win, but he lacks the advantage of incumbency and is better at policy than oratory, so if Trump were to suffer reversals the fall-out could put Cline in jeopardy. It would be a stretch for the Dems, but so were the results of the 2017 state elections, where they flipped 16 VA House seats.
In the Senate race, Corey Stewart is a woeful underdog. This is largely because of Alinskyite slanders, but the situation is what it is, and to have any hope Stewart must get big support in the red counties to offset the Northern VA swamp dwellers.
Given these realities, one would expect 6th District Republicans to be marching shoulder to shoulder while humming a few choruses of Stout Hearted Men (and Women) while they work to spread the message and maximize turnout.
One would be wrong. Instead, the 6th is riven with internal conflict that is diverting energy and resources away from the election and into battles over local county unit control.
For this, the responsibility lies mostly with the new District Chair, Jennifer Brown, and her cohorts, who are more concerned with cementing their own control and expelling Grass Roots activists, whatever the cost to the 2018 election and the long term health of the party.
The situation is complicated, but here is what happened (I think).
The Republican Party in the 6th is, like the party elsewhere, divided pretty evenly into an Establishment wing (GOPe) and the Grass Roots Conservatives (GRC). The GOPe members are more comfortable with big government, as long as they get to control it, and believe that they should control candidate selection, since they regard GRC folks as down market and GRC candidates as somehow disreputable. In several states, when the GRC has picked candidates for the House or Senate, the GOPe has helped defeat them and then lectured the GRC on how it should not pick people who are unelectable. Brown and her allies are decidedly GOPe.
Trump gets the support of both wings, with 88% of Republicans approving of him. However, I would bet that the 12% who disapprove come from the GOPe. The GRC is solidly pro-Trump.
At the 2016 VA state convention, Cynthia Dunbar, a transplant from Texas, captured the hearts and votes of the GRC and won surprise election to the Republican National Committee. In November 2017, after Bob Goodlatte announced his retirement from the US House, she declared her candidacy for the seat. At the same time, Ben Cline, former Goodlatte staffer and Chair of the VA House of Delegates Freedom Caucus, entered the race.
From the outset, Cline was the favorite. He had the support of most of the GOPe while his Freedom Caucus credential gave him solid credibility with the GRC. And, whatever one might think of the ethics of the national GOPe meme that “GRC candidates are toxic in a general election,” it was a potent argument for a Flight 93 House 2018 contest. (I supported Cline at the convention.) Cline should have won easily.
However, several factors complicated the situation:
+ More hats were thrown in the ring, including that of Chaz Haywood, Clerk of Courts in Harrisonburg. While none had much chance of winning, there was a possibility that they could siphon off votes from Cline and deprive him of a majority on the first ballot at the convention on May 19, 2018. (Some are well worth attention as possible future stars, but that is for a different post.)
+ The 6th District is the leading actor in the litigation that declared unconstitutional the VA “Incumbent Protection Act”. The IPA is a weird law, unique to VA, that allows an incumbent to select the manner in which his/her seat will be contested within the party – via convention or primary. In most states, incumbents favor conventions, which they can pack with supporters, rather than primaries, which can be contested by monied outsiders. But VA has open primaries, so a RINO can induce Democrats and Independents to vote in the Republican primary. This is attractive to some elements of the GOPe, who see it as a way to squeeze out the GRC and maintain control of the party, even if they lose in the general. The court’s decision is now on appeal, so whoever controls the 6th District Committee controls the level of effort that will be invested to defend that decision.
+ The 2018 convention would select not only the congressional nominee, but the Chair of the 6th District. The incumbent, Scott Sayre, first elected in 2016, was associated with the GRC, and absolutely despised by the GOPe, which was determined to reverse the 2016 result. They selected Jennifer Brown as the candidate, a Harrisonburg attorney with no discernible political record who was backed by party doyens Roger Jarrell (Brown’s fiancée) and Wendell Walker. To understand the level of rancor involved in this race, look through the posts on Bearing Drift.
+ The county unit committees are dominated by GRCs and favored Dunbar, so the District Committee as a whole was in the same posture.
The pent-up acrimony over the previous Chair race was so great that it would certainly have overflowed sooner or later, but the immediate trigger was that the District Committee did something foolish. In setting the rules for the convention, it called for nomination by a plurality vote, not for rounds of balloting until someone got a majority. This was perceived, correctly, as an effort to favor Dunbar, on the theory that her GRC support would stay solid but that other candidates might siphon off Cline votes.
It is far from clear that this perception was accurate; as noted, Cline’s Freedom Caucus credentials are excellent and he might well have cut into Dunbar’s support. However, partisan advantage aside, the plurality rule is ill-advised. The party should not nominate someone who cannot command majority or better support, even if some of it is tepid. So Cline’s decision to challenge the rule in front of the Republican Party of Virginia, which has the authority to over-rule the 6th District Committee, was correct, regardless of calculations of immediate advantage.
But then Cline did something equally foolish. Instead of orchestrating a low-key change overturning the plurality rule, he issued a blistering attack on Scott Sayre and the 6th District Committee. (There were some other issues about the convention rules, mostly minor or bogus, but useful in that they provided opportunities to attack Sayre.)
Thereafter, any restraints that might have existed were off, and Brown ran a scorched earth campaign against Sayre and the 6th District Committee, accusing them all of election law violations, mismanagement, financial corruption, convention-rigging, and any other charges that could be dreamt of.
Her allies even filed formal complaints with the Federal Election Commission, including a complaint that “[S]eeks to have Sayre Enterprises put under review by the Inspector General’s of the GSA and the Defense Department, to have its Federal contracts revoked, and be barred from bidding on new ones.” The charge? That Sayre allowed the 6th District Committee to meet in one of his conference rooms for free.
This one is a real head scratcher, because, first, Sayre denies it, saying that in fact he billed the Committee, and, second, even if it were true, it injured no Republican. The only people aggrieved would be the Democrats. So why make it, except out of reckless spite?
There were repeated charges that Sayre had favored then Dunbar campaign in releasing lists of delegates, charges that were shrilly repeated without reference to explanations by Sayre and Unit Chairs.
Cline would later point out that he did not formally endorse Brown, which was true, but he also ran a hard campaign against Dunbar, and persisted in the attacks against Sayre and the Committee. He and Brown were most definitely running as a ticket, and the voting at the convention showed it.
For the nomination to the House seat, Cline got 52.6%, Dunbar got 39.2%, and others got 8.2%. Before the voting, Hayward dropped out, so it remains unknown whether Cline or Dunbar would have gotten the plurality had he stayed in. Conventional wisdom is that his votes went to Cline, whom he endorsed, and TBE’s Mick Staton estimated that this represented 6% to 8% of the total vote. The votes for the Chairmanship tracked the congressional results. Brown got 58% and Sayre 42%
So pause for a moment to consider the situation as of the close of the convention. Cline won, but in my view, his unpleasant tactics against Dunbar and his association with Brown’s scorched earth policy in the race for the Chair turned what should have been a going away 70-30 win into a narrow 52-40. (Cline’s staff will, obviously, disagree with this assessment.) He also suppressed the enthusiasm of the GRC, but whether this is temporary or not – we will see in October.
Brown also won, but at a cost. She has accused the 6th District Committee – which she must now attempt to lead – of corruption and malfeasance. She has engaged in lawfare – a strategy of bleeding one’s adversary financially by forcing them to pay hefty legal bills — by bringing in the FEC, and, however bogus the complaints, one must always take the Feds seriously. As Mike Flynn will testify, if they decide they want to get you, they will. So the Committee sequestered $30,000 to provide legal defense.
At this point, after the convention, things got even more weird.
After tough internal fights, winners have a script. They make nice and try to patch things up. So Brown should be pulling back from her positions, saying she did not mean to be insulting and that now she understands the true situation she will work with the Committee to call off the FEC. An examination of the Committee’s books, which is routine when the officers change, found them in good order, and she should express gratification. She should restrain some of her allies, who remind me of a Malamute I once knew whose response to every passerby was simple – bite them in the butt.
Brown has done none of this. In fact:
+ She has not called off her attack curs. They insult GRC activists in ways that make a school playground look mature. (E.g., [the party needs to]“rid itself of the Dunbar/Sayre homos”; [Name] ”is a Bitch and a dried up old hag”. If you want screenshots, they are available upon request.)
+ She has not pulled back on any of her accusations, and in fact has doubled down, calling the Committee she now heads corrupt for voting to defend itself against the FEC. She is trying to make defense impossible.
+ She has not responded to information indicating that the FEC complaints are ill-founded or trivial clerical errors.
+ If she has made any statement in support of the decision against the Incumbent Protection Act, it eludes search engines. In this she is not in sync with Cline, who supports the lower court decision.
+ At the District Committee meetings since she took over as Chair, she has shown a lack of comprehension of the rules of order and amazement that folks she had been insulting for six months do not love her and jump to do her bidding. Her parliamentary and diplomatic schools need remediation. She seemed surprised when the Committee selected subordinate officers who are of the GRC ilk and who did not appreciate her months of insults and accusations.
+ She is going out into the individual units and advocating the removal of any Unit Chair who opposes her.
So what happens next? In a remark attributed to either the physicist Niels Bohr or the sage Yogi Berra (take your pick), “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”
It could be that the 6th District will limp along in a state of animosity and that Cline will win nonetheless, even if the margin is not as big as it should be and even if it under-delivers for Stewart. Then the party will remain in a state of cold civil war and deteriorate.
It could be that events shake up the campaign and the dysfunction costs Cline the seat. This is not probable, but the chance is greater than one would like. This would trigger true upheaval.
It could be that Brown goes, either voluntarily or by formal removal. Under the ByLaws, an officer can be removed by a vote of 2/3, but as a preliminary 1/3 of the members must have signed a statement setting forth the causes of the removal. What constitutes “cause” is not specified, so it would be whatever 2/3 of the Committee deems adequate.
Other possibilities are in play. To my eye, some of the statements Brown made during the campaign look libelous, unless she can show that they were true, and as more information comes in the truth defense looks increasingly shaky. “I was in a political campaign” is not a defense. (When Harry Reid said that Mitt Romney paid no taxes he was careful to do it on the Senate floor because the Constitution’s Speech and Debate Clause shielded him from libel liability.) She could wind up defending some unpleasant litigation.
The general rule is that a complaint to a government agency, however baseless, cannot be grounds for a libel action, but there is a catch – the protection does not extend to republishing the charge elsewhere, as in a press release. Also, a complaint to the FEC is made under oath, and to deliberately make false statements is itself a federal crime.
And it could be that Cline will step in and either cool down Brown and her gang or arrange for a departure. He should, on the Pottery Barn principle that he broke it and now owns it, and out of pure self-interest. He should not want his GRC supporters distracted instead of working to elect him, and one cannot believe that he would support purge efforts.
Whether Cline sees it this way – well, Niels (or Yogi) had it right. In any case, the saga of the 6th will, unfortunately, continue to be unfortunate.