Gizzi On Politics, June 22, 2009

Virginia GOP Chairman Looks Ahead

Two weeks after Creigh Deeds rolled up 50% of the vote over two more liberal primary opponents to win the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia, pundits and pols were immediately dubbing the “centrist” Democrat the big favorite in the fall over the Republican nominee, stalwart conservative former State Atty. Gen. Bob McDonnell. A post-primary Rasmussen poll showed Deeds leading McDonnell by a relatively narrow 47% to 41% and another just-completed survey conducted for the Democratic Governors Association found Deeds with a tighter (42% to 38%) edge over his Republican opponent.  

Be careful with predictions, says just-elected Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins. In a recent interview, Mullins looked ahead to the fall campaign in the Old Dominion with both optimism and enthusiasm.  

“When the Washington Post endorsed Creigh Deeds, their editorial said he was cut from the same cloth as [former Democratic Gov. and now Sen.] Mark Warner and [present Gov.] Tim Kaine,” Mullins told me. “And that’s fine. Kaine’s not as popular as you think, and he’s serving as Barack Obama’s Democratic National Chairman while he is governor. We are going to tie Deeds to that part-time governor of ours.”  

Privately, many GOPers throughout Virginia would have preferred that McDonnell would now be facing either of the two more liberal Democratic hopefuls, former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state legislator Brian Moran, than Bath County State Sen. Deeds. But, as Mullins and others point out, there are chinks in Deeds’ centrist armor. In endorsing Deeds, the Post noted that he “courageously voted for a proposal that including raising the state’s gas tax.” To skeptics who say that Deeds is “too far to the right on social issues,” the Post admonished: “They should look again. Yes, he describes himself as a supporter of the 2nd Amendment. He’s willing, however, to put limits on gun ownership when the stakes are highest.” The Post also hailed the Democratic nominee for “his support for abortion rights and for an amendment to prohibit the Confederate flag emblem from being displayed on state license plates.”   

In contrast, few have questioned McDonnell’s credentials as an across-the-board conservative, or the same good-as-Goldwater records of his ticket-mates: Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP nominee for attorney general. The respective Democratic nominees for the two other statewide offices, former State Transportation Secretary Jodi Wagner and state legislator Steve Shannon, are inarguably to the left of the Republicans and to Deeds himself.

“We have a good [statewide] team and they campaign well together,” said State Chairman Mullins, “And I’ve been going to meetings where I can sense the enthusiasm just by walking in. Why, we had nearly 500 people at a county party meeting in Fairfax and they told me that half the folks who showed up were people they had not seen before. We had 300 people at our Culpepper County meeting and 150 at a breakfast in Virginia Beach. “This will be the first opportunity to repudiate Barack Obama and the whole country will be watching.”  

But How Conservative Is Mullins?  

Any interview with Pat Mullins inevitably gets back to the complex circumstances leading up to his election as party chairman. Earlier this year, opponents of the then-State Chairman, and conservative swashbuckler Jeff Frederick, orchestrated his ouster by one vote at a meeting of the Republican State Committee. The 71-year-old Mullins, a horse insurance salesman and Louisa County GOP Chairman, was then selected to succeed him. An overwhelming vote of the state party convention last month gave Mullins a two-year-term at the party helm.  

“So somehow, these circumstances mean I’m the ‘moderate’ choice for chairman?’ exclaimed Mullins in mock shock. “Well, just go back in your files to 1990, when I lived in Northern Virginia and was elected Republican chairman of Fairfax County. After I beat Andy Walquist [top aide to then-Sen. John Warner], the Washington Post had headlines about the ‘far right’ taking over the party.”

Mullins proudly recalls backing in contested nomination battles such prominent conservatives as home school leader Mike Farris for lieutenant governor in 1993 and Oliver North for the U.S. Senate in 1994.  

After six years as party chairman of Fairfax and a move to rustic Louisa County, Mullins retired from politics, in part because “my wife said ‘no’ to any more of it.” But, in ’06, she relented and Mullins became chairman of Louisa. Under his aegis, the country party quadrupled its membership and went from operating to the red to having money in the bank.  
“I never intended to be state chairman and offered to help Jeff when he had the job,” said Mullins, emphasizing that he was never part of the “Get Frederick” gaggle. But after Frederick’s ouster, he recalled, “Mike Farris and a number of my friends called and said I had to do this. So here I am.”  

GOP All Right  

For all the gloom and doom prognosticating from the liberal media and warnings that the Republican Party must trim its conservative sails, state party chairmen and other leaders continue to come from the party’s right. Among recent changes are…

Utah: With State GOP Chairman Stan Lockhart stepping down, more than 2,000 delegates to the state Republican convention chose conservative Dave Hansen to succeed him. Formerly a top operative with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and twice executive director of the state GOP, Hansen helped run the unsuccessful primary campaign of one of outgoing Gov. Jon Huntsman’s more conservative nomination opponents in 2004. Hansen defeated former Salt Lake County Councilman Steve Harmsen, who lost a bid for Congress to Democrat Allan Howe in 1974.  

New Jersey: Republican gubernatorial nominee Chris Christie earned some admiration from party conservatives last week when he tapped Jay Webber, a 37-year-old assemblyman from Morris County, to become the new chairman of the state Republican Party. Webber, elected to the state assembly in 2007, is regarded not only as a solid conservative but also as a likely candidate for higher office in the Garden State. As we reported last week, former U.S. Attorney Christie has yet to pick a lieutenant governor running mate for his ticket, but state conservatives think his selection of Webber for the party helm is evidence that he is paying more than just lip service to them. Rick Shaftan, manager of Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan’s unsuccessful primary bid against Christie earlier this month, expressed cautious optimism. “It might be a signal that he’s going in a direction of essentially saying he’s not afraid to call himself a conservative, even outside the primary,” Shaftan told the Newark Star Ledger.  

College Republicans: When the biennial meeting of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) convened June 4-6 to elect new officers, Zack Howell, a recent graduate of University of Utah and the former chairman of that state’s CRs, was chosen as the new national chairman. Howell was an intern in the Bush White House and last year served as the campaign manager for Utah Speaker of the House David Clark. The Beehive State native started in politics at age 13, volunteering for conservative state Rep. John Swallow’s unsuccessful 2002 campaign against Democrat Jim Matheson in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District. Howell is the second CRNC chairman to have attended the University of Utah — the other was Karl Rove.