Commentary

Dumping Trump? Personal liberty? That’s no way to win a GOP primary, Del. Anderson.

December 12, 2022 12:01 am
Virginia State Capitol

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With all due respect, Del. Tim Anderson, have you lost your mind?

You’re a first-term Republican member of the House of Delegates running for a second. Yet in the span of less than one month, your clear-eyed candor has put your credentials as a fire-breathing conservative in serious jeopardy, not once but twice, sir!

First, not long after the anticipated red wave midterms turned out to be a purple ripple last month, you said out loud what tens – dare I wager, hundreds? – of thousands of Virginia Republicans likely thought: Maybe it’s time to move on from former President Donald Trump.

Sure, candidates Trump endorsed for high-profile governorships and U.S. Senate seats like Kari Lake in Arizona, Texan Herschel Walker in Georgia and former TV doctor Mehmet Oz lost despite a strong tailwind from an unpopular Democratic president and deep worries about inflation and the economy.

The candidate Trump endorsed in Virginia’s three competitive congressional races, Yesli Vega, ran a strong race but lost to two-term 7th District Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger.

It’s embarrassing to have so little to show in a midterm election during the first term of a president of the opposite party. Sheer inertia almost always drives better results in such elections for the out-of-power party. A supposed GOP rout in the House yielded only a spare Republican majority. And with Georgia Heisman Trophy-winning football legend Walker  losing in a Deep South state that was deep red just four years ago, Democrats improved from a 50-50 U.S. Senate split with Vice President Kamala Harris as their tiebreaker to a 51-49 majority.

But did you have to speak that discomfiting truth to a GOP in which many still confer mythic status upon the lord of Mar-a-Lago? Those MAGA legions vote, sir, especially in primaries.

Then, with that welt still smarting, you pre-filed House Joint Resolution No. 460 – a proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would repeal a same-sex marriage ban that Virginia voters ratified to the constitution in 2006.

Not that the same proposal  hadn’t been tried before. Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, sponsored a resolution in the 2021 legislative session to remove the ban – moot since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision legalized gay marriage, and particularly with Congress passing legislation Thursday to protect same-sex and interracial unions – from the state constitution, which was later blocked by House Republicans. That’s understandable coming from Ebbin, Virginia’s first openly gay legislator.

But both of those back-to-back apostasies from you, Tim? You’ve already felt some of the fury from the MAGA right.

You won your seat narrowly in 2021 over Del. Nancy Dye, D-Virginia Beach, after winning your primary by two dozen votes over former Del. Chris Stolle, whose family has a deep GOP pedigree. Chris’s brother Colin is Virginia Beach’s commonwealth’s attorney, brother Ken is the city’s sheriff and was a state senator before that, and sister Siobhan S. Dunnavant represents a Richmond-area Senate district.

You defended Trumpist state Sen. Amanda Chase when senators of both parties censured her for lauding the insurrectionist mob that sacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as “patriots.” You’re a gun store owner and a tireless defender of Second Amendment rights. You’re a lawyer who took a Virginia Beach bookstore to court last summer in an unsuccessful bid to halt its sale of books with sexual content to teens.

Now? Et tu, Brute.

What you’re doing is nowhere in the modern candidate’s playbook for a GOP primary. It’s common for one to try and out-Trump or out-right the other to win the nomination and tack toward the center to seem more palatable to a broader electorate in November. So I put the question directly to Anderson last week: What were you thinking?

“I’m doing this as I find myself in an incumbent primary,” he said, aware of a possible reckoning ahead. Redistricting by the state Supreme Court last December grouped Anderson in a redrawn 100th House District with Del. Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack.

“Racing to the moderate side of things [in a primary] is not wise political strategy,” Anderson said in a phone interview. “But there’s more at stake here than my next election, and that’s the future of the Republican Party. What I equate myself as doing is I am seeing smoke and I’m yelling ‘Fire!’ and hoping somebody will listen.”

His message is that the party is losing Virginia elections because of its ties to Trump and because its focus on hot-button culture war issues turns off people who would otherwise vote Republican. Years of polling and election results back him up.

During Trump’s time running for or inhabiting the White House, Republicans lost every statewide election. It culminated in the loss of both legislative chambers for the first time in 20 years during the 2019 midterms. With Democratic majorities in the House of Delegates and Senate at the start of 2020 and Democrat Ralph Northam in the governor’s office, the GOP was out of power across the board in Richmond for the first time since 1993.  Anderson saw state policy quickly take a sharp leftward turn.

“I believe that was disastrous for everything we believe as conservatives,” he said.

Anderson’s actions have gotten him into tight spots before. In 2016, a federal judge ordered him to take on 15 pro bono legal cases as punishment for impersonating a judge in a phone call to his office. He said he was trying to test whether his firm’s staff was properly prioritizing calls from a bankruptcy court judge, but the real judge wasn’t amused. During his 2021 House run, Anderson posted on his campaign Facebook page that Virginia didn’t need and should return about $4 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money, only to have the Virginian-Pilot later report that his businesses accepted almost $750,000 from the same program to help cover payroll.

But those missteps didn’t offend Trump’s loyal legions or power-voting Christian conservatives.

The night before our interview, he said, he attended a GOP event where he encountered open hostility over HJ460. He said many approached him afterward and privately agreed with his classical conservative/libertarian position.

“I explained to them … that less government, more freedom is the quintessential foundation of conservatism. The bigger the government, the smaller the person; the smaller the government, the bigger the person. That is who we are at our core as Republicans. But the religious right has taken control of the conservative narrative and we are now at a point where if your message does not meet a purist Christian test, then you are a RINO [Republican in name only], you are not a conservative,” he said.

“What I am hoping will come out of this is that the church will find its voice. I am 100% in support of the church screaming from the rooftops that gay marriage is against God’s law and people shouldn’t be doing it and there should be a different path. That is their job. It is not the job of a government that sells licenses to people to get married to discriminate against anybody wanting that license,” Anderson said.

Whether Anderson wins his nomination contest with Bloxom is a question the next few months will resolve. But win or lose, he will have nudged his party closer to the Reaganesque values that a healthier, more inclusive and successful GOP once held.

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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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