WINCHESTER, Va.-If Mudcat Saunders were running things he would never have approached bringing his beloved Democratic Party together by uninviting one faction of the divided party.
"Well, that would not have been my tactics, if your party is divided, well how do you bring it together if you don't invite all sides?" he asks, confounded by the decision.
But that is exactly what they did to Saunders, a legendary Democratic operative with a deep southern drawl, commanding presence and a fierce loyalty to his party, despite its sharp turn left, beginning along the fringes with Al Gore.
Saunders is the Democrats' outspoken liaison between progressive candidates and rural voters to help them soften their message to longtime Democratic voters who still like God, guns and find themselves in a church pew every Sunday. He was unceremoniously uninvited to the very event that was supposed to bring rural and progressive Democrats together ahead of the governor's race this year.
"Like I said, not exactly the way I would have approached it. I think every voice needs to be heard, we are losing rural Democrat support and I think we really need that for this governor's race in order to win," he said.
In short Democrats believe that because of their populous numbers in the urban suburbs in Northern Virginia they don't need rural voters, nor are they showing any willingness to petition, engage or win them over.
Their beef with him was his unwillingness to vote for Hillary Clinton last year; it doesn't help that he was pretty outspoken about it.
"They don't have to. And this is why we are the minority party," said Dane Strother, a Washington-based Democratic strategist with deep Southern roots, "If we remain uninterested in the rural vote we will remain the minority party."
Virginia Democrats are in the midst of a civil war that is only getting worse rather than better since the election of Donald J. Trump. Virginia did not go for Trump, but its rural voters, a decent amount of them Democrats, voted decisively for Trump over their party's nominee, Hillary Clinton.
That civil war has escalated as the Democratic primary race for governor moves front and center. Both Ralph Northam, an Eastern Shore native, and Tom Perriello, who once represented the 5th Congressional District, come from rural Virginia.
Mudcat supports Northam, "Perriello used to be pro-life, now he's not. Perriello used to be pro-gun, now he is not. He is running away from the moderate Democrats and right into the arms of the left of the party and it's disappointing," he said.
Earlier this month Sen. Bernie Sanders, the defacto leader of the Democratic Party's progressive wing after he effectively harnessed energy among the pary's far left during last year's primary contest between with Clinton, endorsed the former congressman in the governor's race.
The former Blue Dog-like Democrat came into the House majority one cycle after the wave of moderate Democrats swept Republicans in to the minority. He pushes back that he was ever pro-life despite his support for the Stupak Amendment attached to the Affordable Care Act and blames losing his seat to his vote for Obamacare, one that he quickly says he would do again.
Northam is the current lieutenant governor of Virginia, a position elected separately from the governor's office. He is moderate, populist and liked by the state's Democratic Party. He also voted for George W. Bush for president, twice.
One of these guys will soon be the Democratic nominee for governor in Virginia, said Strother. "It is one of only two states, New Jersey is the other, that hold governors' races this year, I think this contest in a purple state will show us the direction my party is going. Will they go full progressive? Will they include blue-collar and working class rural Democrats a message that they can rally around? I sure hope so, or we are in a world of hurt," he said.
Strother said the decision in Roanoke to disinvite Mudcat was a "stupid" one.
The story goes that Mudcat's split from the party began in 2013 when he publicly refused to support Terry McAuliffe; his complaints were that the former Clinton DNC chair lacked any real connection to the average, urban and rural, working class and middle class Virginian.
When McAuliffe won, barely, despite the money, name and Clinton attachment Mudcat pretty much understood his involvement with Democratic candidates' campaigns would dry up. This despite his involvement in getting both former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and current Virginia Sen. Mark Warner elected on the backs of those average, urban and rural, working class and middle class Virginians.
"This is a defining race for us. We have to have a developed, authentic message that reaches these voters and stop alienating them or we will remain in the wilderness," said Strother.
Here in the Shenandoah Valley those exact types of voters are turned off by progressive politics and the state, despite going blue three presidential elections in a row. Those numbers for Democrats have softened not hardened in those cycles.
Clinton beat Trump by under five percentage points in Virginia; not exactly the landslide folks expected. And people tend to forget that McAuliffe's 2013 victory over Republican Ken Cuccinelli was very narrow. Republican Ed Gillespie came so close to upending Warner in the 2014 Senate race that it was a couple of days before it was called.
The story to watch first is where do Democrats go in their primary race this summer. Do they continue to push out moderate voices like Mudcat? Or do they find a way to bring them in with a message that appeals to all? Or do they march leftward and, if so, does that march keep them in the wilderness or do they find victory in the fall? Certainly it is the race to watch.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.