Commentary

With Republicans like these, who needs Democrats?

Watching the GOP eat its young

October 17, 2022 12:02 am

(Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Thou shalt speak no ill of a fellow Republican.—President Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment

You expect Republicans to go after Democrats. And vice versa.

It’s what they do. Like a mongoose and a cobra. Or the Red Sox and the Yankees. They don’t like each other. It’s the natural order of things.

But the 2023 state legislative races, still more than a year away, have generated Republican-on-Republican aggression that’s remarkable by any accounting. And it’s happening as Republicans prepare for nationally prominent midterm congressional races this year in two pivotal Virginia districts.

In Southwestern Virginia, bad blood developed between two Republican members of the House of Delegates shortly after the state’s independent redistricting commission lumped Republican Dels. Wren Williams of Patrick County and Marie March of Floyd County into the redrawn House District 47.

Things came to a head in September when Williams and March, both ardent disciples of former President Donald Trump, attended the same GOP event in Wytheville. That’s where, March alleges, Williams deliberately bumped into her and sent her stumbling backward as he and his wife were leaving the event. 

March, who was not injured, called the cops. And from there it became a literal he-said-she-said.

She claims Williams had been needling her the whole evening, culminating in the forceful contact. She even reenacted the moment for the officers who were dispatched to investigate her complaint.

Williams said he barely and unintentionally brushed against March without even realizing whom he had touched, and apologized to her forthwith.

Each has witnesses who have vouched for his or her account in the dispute. The only video of whatever actually happened, from a security camera in the meeting facility, is so blurry and so distant that it’s inconclusive. It was obtained and published by the Cardinal News.

A court hearing on the complaint is scheduled for Nov. 21 in Wytheville, where, perhaps, some clarity might be achieved, although the internecine quarrel is unlikely to be salved.

On the other side of the commonwealth in Strasburg, fraternal feuding broke out recently between Republicans Dave LaRock, a House of Delegates member, and Lance Allen, who made an unsuccessful bid for the lieutenant governor nomination last year. Like March and Williams, they are both trying to out-MAGA each other in their battle for the GOP nomination to run for a legislative seat they both desire: Senate District 1.

Allen claims that LaRock crashed his campaign’s Oct. 6 screening of “2,000 Mules,” right-wing filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza’s bid to prop up the abundantly discredited claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump.

In a statement Allen posted on Facebook, he said LaRock had been told he could attend as a member of the public but not as a candidate. LaRock showed up, Allen wrote, and “decided to ignore the rules set by the host and began campaigning as soon as he arrived.” He said LaRock tried to place campaign signs around the event venue.

He contends LaRock told him in advance of the screening that he planned to come campaign, “and that if I wanted to have him removed, I’d have to ‘call the local sheriff,’ and that’s what I did.” Deputies arrived and removed LaRock, Allen said.

Not surprisingly, LaRock saw the event differently.

According to an account of the incident published by The Virginia Star, LaRock “did not campaign at the event,” said Daniel Davies, LaRock’s legislative aide.

“Mr. Allen blocked the door and would not allow Del. LaRock to get in,” Davies is quoted as saying. “He was outside the building, never even entered the event.”

Differences between candidates of the same party haven’t always gotten so raw and contentious that police have had to be called to intervene. But that’s the way it is and the way it’s likely to stay, according to people who research such trends in politics for a living.

“Virginia Republicans have come a long way from the days when congressmen who were redistricted into the same district as another Republican simply stepped aside for more senior members of Congress, as George Allen did 30 years ago,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington.

George Allen (no relation to Lance) won a special election to succeed U.S. Rep. French Slaughter in 1991 but chose not to seek reelection a year later after a Democratic-controlled General Assembly put him into the 7th District with longtime Republican Congressman Tom Bliley. Rather than create a divisive intraparty spectacle, Allen focused on a longshot 1993 gubernatorial bid in which he stunned politicos by beating the presumptive favorite, Democratic Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, in a rout. In 2000, he won a U.S. Senate term.

Part of the heat in the Williams/March skirmish may arise from the fact legislative seats in their Republican-friendly region of the state became scarcer in last year’s reapportionment, Farnsworth said. That’s because of significant population shifts from rural to suburban areas over the past decade.

But there’s another reason that party members seem to have embraced open season on one another in a Republican Party that increasingly self-segregates itself between MAGA warriors and more moderate traditionalists whom they deride as “Republicans in name only,” or RINOs.

“In part, it’s the Trump effect,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “The former president has unleashed a kind of political furor as a way of elevating himself, and some others in the party emulate that behavior.”

In an increasingly tribal society, there’s decreasing room for accord or accommodation, particularly in politics. The increased polarization has given rise to behavior that was once considered outside acceptable norms, Rozell said.

“People who disagree have begun to look at the opposition as the enemy of the people and a danger to the republic rather than people with principled disagreements that can be discussed and debated substantively,” he said.

Until there’s an electoral downside to that sort of brass-knuckled, grievance-mongering politics, don’t look for improvement.

Farnsworth gets somewhat philosophical about uncivil candidate discourse and its corrosion of our civil society. 

“People get the politicians they deserve. If you want a better quality of character in public life, then it’s necessary to vote accordingly,” he said. “Taking character more seriously in public figures is a recipe for improved polity. But that doesn’t mean it’s a likely outcome in these times.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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