Tomorrow's Vote On Virginia GOP's Future
While Virginia's Republicans have been busy nominating candidates who are pure of passion for the party's conservative social positions and while the GOP has lost two straight governor's races and control of the state Senate, Virginia voters have made a historic shift over to the other party. A Pew research study finds that Virginians now identify themselves as Democrats by a 32-28 percent margin over Republicans, a 12-point drop for the GOP in just seven years.
So when Virginia's Republican leaders and activists gather for their party convention tomorrow, they will not only be selecting a candidate to go up against former Gov. Mark Warner for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by John Warner, they will also be making a basic decision about the future direction of their party.
That decision will play a part in the contest between former Gov. Jim Gilmore and Del. Bob Marshall of Prince William and Loudoun counties for the Senate nomination, but the truly revealing vote will be on a less well-known, but even more hard-fought race--for chairman of the party.
The incumbent, John Hager (father of President Bush's new son-in-law), is being challenged by Prince William Del. Jeff Frederick, the brash young conservative who is a darling of the anti-abortion movement and the kind of hard-charging figure who elicits groans and worse from old-line Virginia Republicans.
Frederick is campaigning hard for this job, portraying it as the linchpin to the party's effort to regain its strength and reach out to a new generation of Virginians.
And while the party's establishment is rallying around Hager--a letter of support from House Speaker William Howell turned into a mini-blood match on the political blogs, especially after Frederick's wife Amy posted a sharp retort--Hager is simply not the kind who would go out campaigning to keep his job as if he were running for governor.
"People will decide," Hager said in his laconic, wry manner when I asked him about the chairman's race back during the legislative session. "They know who I am and what I stand for, and they'll make their decisions."
Frederick, in contrast, is working nearly every county in the state, trying to present himself as an Adrian Fenty of Virginia's right, a peripatetic worker who has managed to win in a Democratic district through energy, service and commitment to a firmly conservative agenda. "The key to my winning elections while [the Republican Party of Virginia] is losing seats is that I understand how to logistically raise the money, involve the youth, reach out to new communities, and use technology to communicate to voters why our Republican philosophy is best," he writes in a letter in which he pledges not to seek reelection to the state House if he is chosen as party chairman.
While Hager no longer describes himself as a moderate, he is hardly the image of the fire-breathing conservative that Frederick happily embraces. "We've seen the results of becoming 'Democrat-lite' and moderating our core principles," Frederick told the Virginia Family Foundation in an interview.
There is both a generational and a geographic divide in Virginia's Republican party, and while most party leaders believe Hager will be able to hold on to his job tomorrow, the party is a long way from resolving essential questions about whether to try to tack to the center on social issues and compete with Democrats on pocketbook questions such as transportation and taxes, or try to create a new Republican base focused on abortion, family values, the fight against illegal immigration and a pro-environment, smart growth stance of the sort that Marshall has used to win support from moderates.
Some of the same GOP legislators who roll their eyes at the almost religious vehemence of Frederick and state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli on abortion, homosexuality and other hot-button social issues also say privately that the party's real energy lies among those young legislators' supporters. A firmly conservative leader who was less antagonistic than Frederick but far more of an ideologue than an old-school moderate like Hager would really capture the enthusiasm and support of Virginia Republicans, they say.
But that's not the choice the GOP faces Saturday. And that's why John Hager could well be on his way to keeping his job.
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