Overhaul in Old Dominion?

The capture of the governorship by Democrat Tim Kaine last fall, followed by more recent Democratic victories in several special elections for the state legislature, has many Republicans beginning to worry that Virginia could well move from the "red" to the "blue" column — particularly if former Gov. (2001-05) Mark Warner is on the national Democratic ticket in ’08.

Most GOP activists in the Old Dominion are satisfied with the leadership of State Party Chairman Kate Obenshain Griffin and Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell — both longtime, much-respected leaders among conservatives. However, there is also a sense that there must be some changes in style and personnel at the lower level of the party in order to rekindle enthusiasm among the conservative grass-roots. That is why Heidi Stirrup, former Reagan Administration official and longtime party activist in Prince William County, is mounting a challenge to longtime 10th District Republican Chairman Jim Rich, who conservatives say has increasingly become distant from the predominantly conservative grass-roots party volunteers.

"Very simply, we must go back to the basics of building our party, our volunteers and our reliable Republican base," says Stirrup, wife of Prince William County Superviser and fellow conservative swashbuckler John Stirrup. The couple proudly met and married while both were working as political appointees under President Reagan, their hero. "The chairman of the 10th District [Republican] Committee can do more to support our Republican units and provide the resources necessary to be a better, more effective ally and partner to our units." The sprawling 10th District includes seven counties and three cities.

Oil lobbyist Rich, long considered closer to more moderate "establishment" Republicans than grass-roots conservatives, has frequently been criticized by opponents within the party for calling important meetings on short notice and at obscure locations — "the easiest way to get your friends there and stay in control," as one skeptic from Northern Virginia put it. In speaking at meetings and talking to delegates to the district wide convention May 26, opponent Stirrup almost always vows to "bring honesty, accountability and transparency to the workings of the 10th District committee."

To be sure, arguing over where and when meetings are held is a matter normally reserved for insiders. But it has flared up as an issue because areas in the district that have previously been counted on to deliver big margins for the Republican ticket statewide and in legislative races have been underperforming to the point of sending panic through GOP ranks. One instance was the special election for state senator in rapidly growing Loudon County earlier this year, in which Democratic lawyer Mark Herring outraised and defeated conservative Republican Mick Staton, Jr., thus becoming the first Democratic senator from the county in nearly a decade. County Superviser Staton and other conservatives believe Rich and the party organization could have done more for him, and Staton himself is a backer of Stirrup (who walked precincts for him in the special election, even though she lived outside his district). Another high-profile backer of the challenger to Rich is State GOP Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, himself a strong conservative.

The major hurdle Stirrup needs to overcome is Rich’s support from veteran Rep. Frank Wolf, easily the most popular Republican in the district. Stirrup, however, is undeterred, noting, "I consider the congressman my friend and I have been a loyal supporter of his … I worked with him in securing passage of legislation to fight religious persecution [and] to stop illegal trafficking of women and children. If I am successful in this race, I look forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with Congressman Wolf."

(Stirrup for Chairman, 4205 James Madison Highway, Haymarket, Va. 20169; 703-753-1963)