When I first ran for lieutenant governor in 2005, I was viewed as a conservative Republican. Fast forward to today and you’ll find that I am now viewed as an “Establishment Republican,” which is apparently a bad thing.

Interestingly, I haven’t changed. My political philosophy and approach is the same today as it has always been, but the definition of what it means to be a conservative Republican has obviously changed.

These days it is not enough to have a conservative political philosophy and approach. These days, it is more about style than substance. These days, it seems that to be a “true” conservative Republican you must embrace the following traits, most of which I find undesirable.

First, you must adhere to a rigid and sometimes extreme conservative political philosophy.

Second, you must adamantly oppose and demonize those that do not fully agree with you on every issue.

Third, you must take an absolutist, and often times mean-spirited approach to politics and policy.

If you fail to pass this litmus test, you cannot be a conservative Republican in the vernacular of 2016. If you fail to pass this litmus test you are a RINO (Republican In Name Only), and you are branded an “Establishment Republican.”


Frankly, I don’t care if people call me an Establishment Republican. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. In fact, I’ve come to wear it as a badge of honor.

I’ve been working on my own definition of what it means to be an Establishment Republican. While my definition is still a work in progress, I would suggest that the following are some good factors to consider when deciding what kind of Republican you are:

First, an Establishment Republican is typically someone who was actively involved in the Republican Party prior to the advent of the Tea Party.

In my case, I have been a Republican since I worked on my first political campaign at the age of 15. I have been a member of the Republican Party of Virginia since 1987. And I held elected office as a Republican for more than 22 years.

Even though some of the GOP’s more recent members seem to think that they are the only ones who know what it means to be a Republican, I would remind them that there was a very successful Republican Party prior to the advent of the Tea Party. In fact, I would argue that the Republican Party was stronger, more cohesive, and more successful in days gone by than it is today.

Second, an Establishment Republican is someone who adheres to a conservative political philosophy, but understands that not everyone will agree with us on every issue; and we have respect for dissenting opinions, even if we don’t agree with them.

Or, as Ronald Reagan said, we understand that the person who agrees with us 80 percent of the time is an 80 percent friend, not a 20 percent traitor. This distinguishes us from those that take an ideologically rigid “my way or the highway” approach to politics and policy.

Third, an Establishment Republican is someone who understands that there is a difference between being conservative and being anti-government.

Establishment Republicans are not anti-government. Yes, we believe in keeping government small and focused on its core responsibilities; but we recognize that there is a legitimate role for government to play in our society, and we understand that an effectively functioning government is one of the key social institutions that enables a successful society to thrive.

Fourth, an Establishment Republican is someone who realizes that being involved in politics is about more than engaging in the great ideological debates of our day. It is ultimately about winning elections, earning the right to lead and leading effectively.

Unfortunately, there are many in the Republican Party today who would rather lose elections and maintain a sense of rigid ideological purity than win elections and actually have a chance to accomplish something meaningful. I have no time for that.

Finally, an Establishment Republican is someone who is more interested in solving problems and getting things done than in simply making points and picking fights.

In 2009, former Gov. Bob McDonnell and I ran a very successful statewide campaign by talking about results-oriented conservatism. We took our conservative values, related them to the most important issues facing Virginia families, and offered a positive vision for the future of our state. We won by historic margins.

This is the essence of results-oriented conservatism — it’s about solving problems, getting things done and creating greater opportunity for families and businesses. That’s what Establishment Republicans believe in.


No, I don’t mind being called an Establishment Republican, especially when you think of it in these terms. I wear it as a badge of honor, and so should you, if you share these values and goals.

However, I prefer to think of myself as a more traditional Republican, or a mainstream Republican, which distinguishes me from the extreme voices that seem to dominate the Republican Party these days.

Who knows, maybe what goes around will come around. I long for the days when being a conservative Republican was a more positive thing, and easier to understand. I know this for sure, I’m not changing, no matter what they call me.

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Bill Bolling is a Republican and the former lieutenant governor of Virginia. He is also chairman of the Virginia Mainstream Project, which is dedicated to restoring a more responsible approach to politics and policy in Virginia. He can be reached at bill.bolling@billbolling.com

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