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Bob Klima stands near the doorway where citizens continue to pile in for a Nelson County Board of Supervisors meeting addressing the Second Amendment sanctuary resolution on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 at the Nelson County General District Court.

How did Virginia’s once dominant Republican Party slip so fast from having 66 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates about two years ago to 45 seats when it convenes Jan. 8?

Part of the answer rests in the GOP going “Super Rural” with its messaging and white male culture while Virginia trends “Super Suburban” with more women and minorities taking active political roles in growing suburbs.

GOP loyalists who gather the first weekend of each December in a Republican Advance—the party never uses the word “retreat”—acknowledge their need to recruit and put forward more female and black candidates.



Strategy sessions at this year’s event in Bath County reportedly included titles such as “Trump the Race Card” and “Winning with Women.”

Some party leaders also suggested Republicans should cut out the infighting that do nothing to broaden the party base.

“Are you ready to start winning again?” Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, asked a hundred party stalwarts at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs last weekend. The soon-to-be House Minority Leader urged fellow Republicans to focus their fight instead on Democrats.

Gilbert had reason to wonder how seriously fellow Republicans took his advice as a number of 2020 congressional hopefuls have launched no-holds-barred bids for party nominations.

Fifth District Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson County, is being challenged by Bob Good, a Campbell County supervisor and Liberty University athletics official who charges that Riggleman has betrayed the trust of the conservative GOP base.

Riggleman last summer officiated a same-sex marriage between two gay Republican men. Good is not citing the wedding as a reason for his candidacy, but some Fifth District GOP officials have sought censure against Riggleman for it in the sprawling congressional district that stretches from Danville to north of Warrenton.

Nomination battles governed by attempts to enforce ideological purity are a common result of political gerrymandering. Virginia contains a good many legislative districts that are not competitive in November elections in which nomination fights are decided by a party’s smaller springtime base.

In House of Delegates districts, Virginia Democrats jumped far ahead of the GOP in 2017 and again this year by running, backing and electing more women than ever before against a rural-based GOP that now punishes Republicans who fail to support an unpopular president.

Republicans recruited more women as candidates this year but still lost six more House seats as their campaigns relied on money and messaging from party leaders who could not criticize or escape the excesses of President Donald Trump.

Trump carried 44 percent of the state’s presidential vote in 2016, losing to Hillary Clinton by 212,000 votes, and has grown more unpopular in the state since. An October Wason Center Poll out of Christopher Newport University showed Trump slipping to a 37 percent approval rating in Virginia.

Virginia’s nationalized election politics last month gave the General Assembly 136 of its 140 incoming legislators who won in districts carried by their party’s presidential candidate, Amy Friedenberger reported in the Roanoke Times.

The GOP’s biggest gift to Virginia Democrats has been—and will continue to be—a president who alienates suburban dwellers, minorities and women while stubbornly insisting on fealty.

Virginia is demographically a suburban dominated state. Trump is one tough sell outside its relatively shrinking rural electorate.

Republicans once welcomed more Virginians to a wider-tent party and could criticize the White House before their campaigns became nationalized and subjected to primaries aimed at weeding out so-called RINOs (Republicans in name only).

Suburban moderates feel less welcome in a GOP that rallies around a president who disrespects immigrants—13 percent of Virginia’s population—and treats disagreement as disloyalty.

Even as many thousands of rural residents calling for “Second Amendment Sanctuary counties” may be more feel-good symbolism than new political clout for gun-rights Republicans.

“I don’t think the GOP is at a loss for middle-aged white guys who care about guns,” said Chris Saxman, a former Republican delegate from Staunton. “But any time a thousand people show up and you don’t get their names and information it’s an opportunity lost.”

Besides, Saxman said, it could prove useful in future elections if Republicans are smart and organized.

“It’s symbolic, but symbols have great meaning. They keep fires burning,” Saxman said. “Especially if Democrats overreach, and they will overreach” their November election mandate.

Prince William County is a perfect example of how changing demographics can trump the burning fires of symbolism, however.

On Dec. 10, Prince William’s outgoing Republican-leaning Board of Supervisors adopted a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution.

Democrats, who take control of the county board within a month, vow to undo and rescind that resolution when they become the majority.

The once Republican and rural county also is sending Democrats to the General Assembly who ran on enacting tougher gun control laws.

The fast-growing Northern Virginia county will be a Second Amendment Sanctuary for about two to three weeks. And its General Assembly delegation will be part of the legislature’s new majority.

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Gibson is a senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. These opinions are his own.

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