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Virginia Notebook: GOP Could Learn From Democrats

Steve Fehr

If Republicans acted like Democrats, they wouldn't be priming for a clash next year over who their party's nominee will be for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by John W. Warner (R-Va.).

With former governor Mark R. Warner (D) now a Senate candidate, Republicans are bracing for a nasty primary or convention battle between Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Fairfax) and former governor James S. Gilmore

Davis supporters say Gilmore would get crushed in a primary general election on Davis's home turf in vote-rich Northern Virginia, which has been trending Democratic. Gilmore supporters counter that Davis is a RINO (Republican in Name Only).

Democrats, however, couldn't be happier with Mark Warner, a self-described moderate, as their candidate.
Democrats have been all about winning in recent election cycles, even if their nominee doesn't toe the party line on some issues.

A year ago, Northern Virginia moderates supported James Webb over Harris Miller mainly because they thought Webb's military background made him more electable than Miller.

They didn't care that Webb was a former Republican who had worked for President Ronald Reagan and had spoken out against affirmative action. Webb's subsequent victory over former Sen. George Allen (R) proved Democratic voters made the right choice by putting put aside ideology and focusing focused on the bigger picture: a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.

Democratic delegates ousted Del. Franklin P. Hall (D-Richmond) as minority leader this year and replaced him with Ward L. A. Armstrong (D-Henry), who supports restrictions on abortion and is and pro-gun, because they thought he would be a better leader as they try to recapture the majority.

Democrats didn't care that Armstrong is so conservative he probably would have been denied a speaking role at some past Democratic National Conventions.

After losing two consecutive governor's races and last year's U.S. Senate race, Virginia Republicans should be hungry for a victory in 2008.

But at least so far, instead of a coordinated effort to win in November 2008, the discussion so far has centered on how bloody the primary or convention will be between Davis and Gilmore.

Part of the problem for the Republicans is that it isn't clear-cut whether Gilmore or Davis stands a better chance against Warner.

According to a Washington Post poll last October, Warner had a favorability rating of at least 70.percent in every region of the state.
By comparison, Allen's favorability rating a year before his race, when everyone was saying he was unbeatable, ranged from 65.percent in Lynchburg/Southside to 48.percent in Northern Virginia, according to a Washington Post Poll in September 2005.

Allen came within 9,000 votes of winning his 2006 race, despite his well-publicized gaffes.
What will it take for Mark Warner to be defeated? It's going to take a lot more than the possibility of having Hillary Clinton on the same ballot as Warner next year, which some Republicans suggest is their key to victory.

Davis and Gilmore can both make convincing arguments that each is the more electable candidate against Warner.
Davis is a proven vote-getter in Northern Virginia, where Republicans need to do better if they want to win statewide. He also has a moderate voting record for a Republican south of the Mason-Dixon line, a point he believes will make him more appealing to swing voters who often decide elections.

But it remains to be seen whether Davis can whittle away at Warner's 76.percent favorability rating in Northern Virginia.

Davis could also have a hard time attacking Warner on taxes, which the Republican National Senatorial Campaign Committee is trying to make an issue in the 2008 campaign.

In 2002, Davis supported the unsuccessful referendum proposal to raise the sales tax in Northern Virginia to pay for transportation improvements. In 2004, Davis offered campaign cash to House Republicans who supported Warner's $1.5.billion tax increase.

It's also hard to see how Davis will wage an effective campaign against Warner -- who had a 73.percent favorability rating in Lynchburg/Southside -- in rural Virginia considering the issue of gun control could be off the table.

In 2006, Davis earned received a D rating last year from the National Rifle Association. When Warner ran for governor in 2001, the Fairfax-based NRA gave him Warner a C. The NRA also publicly praised Warner in 2005 when he signed several pieces of pro-gun legislation, including a bill that allows permit holders to carry concealed weapons in their vehicle on school property.

Gilmore, a Richmond native, could help erode Warner's popularity in the Richmond suburbs, which a GOP candidate has to win handily to be elected statewide.

Gilmore, who is on the NRA's board of directors, could be more effective than Davis in riling up the GOP base over social issues, immigration and gun control.

But those same issues could cost Gilmore votes in Northern Virginia.

Gilmore could be dogged in a general election campaign for the Senate over his performance as governor, including Mark Warner's argument that he left the state with a $3.billion deficit.

Gilmore, whose failed presidential campaign ended in debt, also has to convince the party faithful that he is capable of raising the $15.million that will be needed to run a competitive race. Davis is a proven fundraiser with $1.million already in the bank.

Republicans may want to consider settling on their most electable candidate, as national Democrats have done in enticing Warner into the race.

But Virginia Republicans say there are no GOP brokers left in the state to resolve the split, and the ones in Washington are too distracted to get involved. And even if someone tried to intervene, party leaders say the divisions within in the GOP are so sharp that the effort to avoid a nomination battle would probably fail.

So it will most likely be up to GOP voters to decide their party's nominee. The contest should be framed around electability, which won't be a slam-dunk for Davis, instead of trying to resolve how big the GOP tent should be.

And if GOP activists chose a "RINO," they should remember that a rhinoceros looks a lot more like an elephant than a donkey does.

By Steve Fehr  |  September 19, 2007; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Election 2008/U.S. Senate , James Gilmore III , Mark Warner , Thomas M. Davis III , Tim Craig  
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Next: Fairfax Dems Say Baise's Gloom, Doom Won't Sell

Comments

I would give Warner an A on guns based on his performance as Governor.

Tom Davis has a weak record on every issue. It should be noted that the Republicans have done poorly in Northern Virginia since he came to power in Fairfax. His triangulations work for Tom Davis but seem to do nothing to motivate folks to vote for his brand of Dem-lite Republicanism.

The Democrats do pick up votes when the dump their radical anti-gun, pro-abortion and leftist stances.

Posted by: Gun Rights Guy | September 19, 2007 3:49 PM | Report abuse

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