Seven-Field Republican Primary In VA-05 Could Yield Another NY-23-Style GOP War

Lauren Victoria Burke

The cry of “RINO” in Virginia’s fifth Congressional district is starting to sound a bit familiar as Republicans have opted for a primary election to choose their nominee to challenge freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA).

Tea party activists in the district don’t think the favored candidate Robert Hurt, a state senator from rural Chatham, is conservative enough.

The June primary is an interesting development in the VA-05 district, which is the top target for Congressional Republicans who held it until last year.

There are seven candidates and Democrats see a potential for a NY-23 repeat, with an independent candidate gaining steam if Hurt picks up the nomination.Fifth District Republican Party Chairman Tucker Watkins tells TPMDC in an interview that it is “absolutely not” similar to what happened in upstate New York (where GOP infighting ultimately shifted the longtime Republican seat to a Democrat).

Watkins said there are more candidates vying for the seat than have announced, adding: “Nine candidates is certainly not a New York 23. and Virginia is not New York.”

Watkins defended the primary decision as the “most wide open process you can have” and said the NY-23 Republicans would have never nominated moderate Dede Scozzafava if they’d had a primary.

But the grassroots might not be on board.

Hurt was one of 17 House Republicans who in 2004 joined Democrats to pass a $1.4 billion tax increase to balance the state’s budget under then-Gov. Mark Warner.

That year, Grover Norquist put Hurt’s mug shot on a Wild West-style “Most Wanted” poster and promised there would be consequences for the tax-raising Republicans.

But actually, Hurt went on to win the race to replace retiring state Sen. Charles Hawkins, another moderate Republican who voted for higher taxes.

The tax vote is the biggest issue conservatives are raising as they suggest national Republicans are pushing the local party to back Hurt.

“Robert Hurt is no Scozzafava,” Watkins told TPMDC. “That’s a popular thing for his opponents to say but Robert is not that person.”

The Lynchburg News & Advance reported on conservative frustration following this weekend’s vote to hold a primary:

Several activists in the conservative Tea Party movement, who had held up signs that read “Convention” during the meeting, walked out grumbling. Some of the activists vowed they wouldn’t support a Republican primary winner.

“The secret ballot bothered me the most,” said Bill Hay, a Tea Party organizer from Greene County. Republicans talk about the need to be fiscally conservative, Hay said. But holding a primary will cost local governments in the Charlottesville-to-Danville 5th District hundreds of thousands of dollars in election expenses, Hay said.

Mark Lloyd, the new leader of Lynchburg-area Tea Party activists, said the choice of a primary left him “incredibly disappointed that the Republican Party would not listen” to the group.

But Lloyd vowed to continue the Tea Party’s efforts to organize three debates for all even candidates. The first debate is to be held in Albemarle County in January, and the group plans to hold other debates in Lynchburg and Danville, Lloyd said.

All seven candidates have told the Tea Party organizers they will participate in the debates, Lloyd said. Verga, Ferrin and Hurt all said Saturday they had generally agreed to be in those debates.

Brad Rees, who in October dropped his candidacy for the Republican nomination and switched to the Constitution Party, said Saturday he still plans to run, although he could potentially support four of the Republican contenders if one of them is nominated.

“They have just chosen the best way to elect a RINO to that seat,” Rees said, using an acronym for “Republican In Name Only” that originated with the Republican Party’s most conservative members.

Watkins said Perriello has voted against wishes of his district and the Republicans are eager to unseat him.

Late Update: NRCC Spokesman Andy Sere offers a comment:

“The NRCC has not made an endorsement in Virginia’s 5th District. We welcome the opportunity to work with anyone and everyone focused on defeating Tom Perriello. Now that local Republican unit chairs have chosen a method of nomination, we look forward to supporting whomever local Republican primary voters choose as their nominee.”