A Conservative Kingmaker Talks Virginia and 2016
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because as goes Virginia, so may the country.
He’s a former Goldwater delegate and a Reaganite. He’s trained some of the most important conservatives of our era, from Ralph Reed to Grover Norquist to Karl Rove. He can filibuster your ear off about the various rules and regulations governing Republican party politics — the stuff that makes and breaks candidates during a primary. He’s watched (and helped, you might argue) Virginia turn from a mostly blue state to very purple. He’s 75 years old and retirement is “not in his vocabulary.” He is also a deep lover of daylilies, and has been cross-pollinating them since the age of 8.
Meet Morton Blackwell, conservative kingmaker, who wears two major hats on the national political landscape. Hat number one: He founded and runs the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that teaches young organizers the ins and outs of grassroots activism and using technology effectively (yep, the kids learn from their elder here). Hat number two: He’s on the Republican National Committee, where he geeks out wholesale on those rules. Blackwell chatted with OZY from his Arlington office about the state of Virginia politics going into 2016, how Republicans can give the Obama ’08-ers a run for their money and what it’s been like to stand at the center of decades of conservative politics.
We should note that Blackwell’s opinions are his own; the Leadership Institute steers clear of any official political opinions or stances. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OZY: Tell us about 2016, especially in your state. What’s the plan for GOP victory, and are you optimistic?
Morton Blackwell: I think that the bloom is off the rose with respect to Barack Obama — and I think it’s very possible that Republicans can carry Virginia in 2016. There have been excruciatingly close statewide elections — we came very close with Ed Gillespie, and our candidate for governor, Ken Cuccinelli, came quite close to beating Terry McAuliffe, despite an enormous disparity in resources. The race for attorney general was even closer.
Here in Virginia, a big question may be resolved at the meeting of the state committee, where they’re likely to decide whether or not to have a presidential primary for Republicans. We can decide to hold a primary or elect our delegates. I favor not having a presidential primary for a lot of reasons. There are serious problems with that model: We do not register by party here, so on primary day, if both parties are having primaries, a voter can vote in whichever he chooses. On past occasions, Democrats have organized themselves to participate in the Republican primary. And that is exacerbated in 2016 by the likelihood that Hillary Clinton will be way, way ahead … which will mean Democrats could come in and do some mischief.
OZY: How have you seen Virginia change through the years?
MB: When I moved to Virginia at age 32 in 1972, there were just a handful of Republican House members. There had not been a Republican governor in living memory (except for the fact that we elected one in 1969). Republicans were a tiny minority. That is not the case today. There’s a great disparity in resources but we have seen an immense effort in party building, recruiting, running good candidates, raising funds. At root, I think Virginia is a conservative state. There’s also a philosophical element to the change. The Democratic Party is going more and more to the left, and a lot of people who started their lives as conservative Democrats have begun voting for Republican candidates.
OZY: That was the case for your parents in Louisiana.
MB: I was the first Republican in my family — my parents were conservative Democrats.
OZY: And you went from that to being the youngest Goldwater delegate and eventually working in the Reagan White House. Then you left to found the Leadership Institute. Tell us a story about your time training many of today’s best-known conservatives.
MB: It was in the Reagan days. In the spring or summer of 1980, I hired 30 of the best I knew to be field reps, organizing and canvassing for Reagan. In one of the schools I led, there was one of the most outstanding people — a man named Jack Abramoff. He was truly outstanding: Brandeis, College Republicans — he became the College Republican National Committee’s national chairman. I promptly offered him one of those 30 field jobs in the National Youth Efforts for Reagan. And Jack told me that while he appreciated the offer, he felt the responsibility to perform his duties in Massachusetts. He said, the one thing you’ve taught me is to organize campuses, and we’re going to carry Massachusetts for Reagan. I laughed. I said, if we carry Massachusetts for Reagan, well, then it will be a landslide.
And he did what he said he was going to do! He canvassed the student bodies, found Reagan supporters and got them to vote. And it was a landslide.
OZY: What are you concerned about when it comes to your party’s organizing efforts?
MB: It’s the story of the conservative movement: You need political technology. And that is a problem, sometimes, for philosophically committed people who tend to believe that being right is sufficient. They believe in the Sir Galahad theory: I will win because my heart is pure. But little by little, through efforts to which I have devoted much of my life, more and more of the philosophically committed conservatives have concluded that political skills and techniques, while they are philosophically neutral, are what determines how many effective activists you have. More and more people have accepted the moral obligation to study how to win. That process, though, is far from complete.