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Republican strategy for Garrett fallout: Don't say a word

What does a party do when its candidate is accused of strangling his wife and plotting to murder his chief of staff?

Nothing, for now.

In court filings from his bitter divorce proceeding, Republican Tom Garrett, a former Virginia representative in Washington and now a candidate running unopposed for the 56th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, is alleged to have physically abused his wife, frequently threatened suicide, and spoken of a desire to kill his former chief of staff.

Two sources familiar with the situation corroborated one of the assault allegations, telling The Daily Progress that Garrett did indeed attempt to strangle his wife Flanna Sheridan on a New Orleans hotel room bed, as is detailed in a court filing.

Garrett has denied the claims.

While some local supporters have rallied behind their candidate, Republican officials aren’t exactly rushing to his aid. Instead, they’re avoiding comment altogether.

“That is the smart way to do it,” Chaz Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, a group that specializes in predicting state legislative elections, told The Daily Progress. “When you are stuck with someone on your ticket that you need to win, you want to just ignore their baggage and hope that people stop paying attention to it.”

With the House majority possibly hanging in the balance, the Republican Party of Virginia really does need Garrett to win.

Currently, Republicans control the House with a narrow 49-46 lead. Recent redistricting gives Democrats a prime opportunity to retake the majority, and CNalysis slightly favors them to do just that. Republicans risk retaining the House if they lose the conservative bastion that is the 56th District, which includes Appomattox, Buckingham and Cumberland counties as well as parts of Fluvanna, Goochland, Prince Edward and Louisa counties, where Gov. Glenn Younkin beat out his Democratic opponent former Gov. Terry McAuliffe with 64.9 of the vote.

And since he secured the nomination months ago, beating out two other candidates in the Republican primary, his party may feel it has little option but to ride it out.

“Once everything has been filed to the state and the primary period has passed, there really isn’t much the party can do to remove him from the ballot other than political pressure,” a former state Republican Party official, who agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity, told The Daily Progress. “The fact that he is the nominee after f–cking up so much in such spectacular public fashion is kind of in and of itself a miracle for him.”

The official was referring to Garrett’s time in the U.S. Congress, a single-term that resulted in the Ethics Committee investigating him and finding that Garrett frequently drank in office, used official resources for personal needs and hindered the investigation.

“Representative Garrett’s response to the Committee’s investigation demonstrates his failure to appreciate the extent and severity of his misuse of official resources or the Committee’s lawful jurisdiction over his conduct,” the official report reads.

Garrett chose not to run for reelection, announcing in an emotional video that he is an alcoholic.

After publishing stories about the many allegations made against Garrett in divorce proceedings, The Daily Progress reached out to Republican House leadership in Richmond.

“I bet they didn’t return your calls,” predicted Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Pretty much.

Del. Mike Webert of Fauquier, who serves as whip of the Republican House Caucus, did in fact pick up the phone. So did Garren Shipley, director of communications for Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah.

But both declined to comment, claiming they were not familiar with the allegations against Garrett. The Daily Progress followed up, sending each of them a link to a story outlining the accusations against their soon-to-be colleague. Neither Webert nor Shipley responded.

Similarly, Gilbert himself and House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore of Gate City did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Progress.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office referred The Daily Progress to the Spirit of Virginia, his campaign’s political action committee. The PAC did not return requests for comments from The Daily Progress. Neither did the Republican Party of Virginia.

“You can be sure they’re discussing it. Whenever they won’t talk to you, you know they’re discussing it,” Sabato said.

“Generally speaking, public officials don’t return calls when it’s an unpleasant subject and they can’t give an answer to make them look good,” Sabato continued. “There’s nothing you can say about this except, ‘No comment.’”

In a year when suburban women could help decide elections statewide, having a candidate accused of domestic abuse puts the party in a difficult predicament.

“They’re in a shitty situation. I’m sympathetic,” the former party official said of Virginia Republicans. “They need to be focusing on winning a bunch of districts that voted heavily for Joe Biden and that Youngkin narrowly won by winning over suburban moms. And then you got Tom Garrett going and being accused of choking out his wife.”

Darrell Byers, chairman of the Fluvanna Republican Committee, a county Garrett will represent if he takes office, said local Republicans are sticking with the man who won the Republican nomination.

“He’s the candidate that’s going to be on the ballot on Nov. 7 and Fluvanna is going to stand behind Tom until something indicates we shouldn’t,” Byers told The Daily Progress.

“These are very serious allegations, but that’s all they are right now, is allegations,” he said. “Tom has been in Richmond before. I know how he’s going to vote and he’s going to vote the way we want him to vote.”

It’s possible, if not likely, that another conservative would also deliver votes that please 56th District Republicans. But with the primary in the rearview mirror, the simplest way for the party to replace Garrett with a baggage-free candidate would be for Garrett to resign.

That seems unlikely. After all, the former congressman is in the midst of a political comeback.

“It’s amazing they want to hang on the way they do, but it’s their salvation to some degree, it’s how they see it,” Sabato said. “They’re public people and without a title in front of their name they have a hard time functioning.”

One person who knows Garrett from previous political campaigns worries about the candidate’s well-being.

"I like Tom when Tom can be Tom, but Tom running for House is not healthy for him. I really wish he could deal with this elsewhere," the person told The Daily Progress. "I hope he wrestles his demons and comes out on top, but what he’s doing right now is. … He just needs to get out of this thing."

While the party can’t force Garrett to resign, it could pressure him by refusing to finance his campaign. But it appears that’s already happened.

When Garrett first ran for state senate in 2011, the Republican Party of Virginia donated nearly $250,000 to his campaign. This cycle, it hasn’t donated a single dollar to Garrett, although three separate Republican groups did give him $7,400 before the primary, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Elected Republicans could rally behind another candidate to challenge Garrett via a write-in campaign. Something similar has happened before.

In 2011, Republican Bill Janis chose not to seek reelection to the House of Delegates and instead chose to run for Henrico County commonwealth’s attorney, challenging Republican Matthew Geary in the general election. Geary had admitted to having an extramarital affair, and Republican leaders from across the state, including then-U.S. Speaker of the House Eric Cantor, chose to rally around Janis, who ran as an independent.

A Democrat ended up winning, likely aided by the Republican split.

With the House majority at stake, the party may not want to take that risk. Instead, it appears to be avoiding any discussion of Garrett’s apparent transgressions.

“If this were a very competitive district he’d be in deep trouble,” Sabato said. “Ten years ago, pre-Trump, I’d say he was dead as doornail. But in this era, nothing kills anybody for sure.”

Without a resignation, Garrett appears on track to sail to victory. Youngkin won 65% of the vote in the district, and this time around, Democrats didn’t even nominate a candidate.

“We’d have a nonzero chance of winning if we had a candidate. We have a zero percent chance without one,” a Democratic Party of Virginia official told The Daily Progress under the condition of anonymity.

“I’ve seen literal child molesters get elected to state legislatures in districts that are purple. Tom Garrett has a crimson red district,” Nuttycombe said. “It wouldn’t matter if Jesus Christ ran as a Democrat against him. Garrett would win.”

If Garrett does face any political repercussions, they would likely come after the election and would depend on who wins the majority.

The former Republican Party official believes that if Democrats win the House, Republicans will “kick Garrett to the curb.” Without control of the chamber, they won’t need his vote.

“If they keep the majority they’ll give him some really crappy committee assignments,” the person said.

Either way, that person expects the party to primary Garrett when he’s up for reelection and rally behind his opponents.

“It’s not a matter of whether Tom Garrett’s political career is over,” the former official said. “It’s if he will survive two years before he comes before voters and it’s over again.”


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