RICHMOND -- House Republican leaders are preparing a statewide election-year campaign strategy centering on abolishing the car tax, raising money to pay for road projects and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
The plan -- still in its early stages -- is designed to give GOP candidates a shared platform on which to campaign for the general election.
The details of the unified House GOP agenda will be finished by the June primary elections, lawmakers and strategists said. And they said the initiatives are likely to include proposals that, for instance, would raise money through fee increases or call for developing private toll roads to ease traffic congestion without raising Virginia's gasoline tax.
Several House leaders likened their plan to a referendum, in which voters will decide not only on candidates but also on specific party-endorsed ideas that all Republicans could offer during their races.
"If we take that message to the people and we win running on our ideas, then we come into next year with wind beneath our sails," said Del. C.L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (R-Warren), the House Republican policy chief who is helping develop the agenda.
Others said they saw the campaign strategy as an opportunity to help define GOP candidates as a united group for voters. "This is an opportunity for us to have our own identity," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem).
The platform follows a General Assembly session during which House Republicans pushed a host of initiatives, including tax cuts, a $1 billion transportation plan and a cut in business regulations. But several of their key proposals were defeated by the GOP-led Senate, including the phaseout of the unpopular car tax, a bill that would have raised $100 million for transportation by increasing fines on bad drivers and a 10-year proposal to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Those defeats at the hands of the Senate came a year after House and Senate Republicans waged a bitter battle over taxes eventually won by senators. They joined Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) in approving a $1.5 billion tax plan that a majority of House Republicans opposed.
Now, Republican delegates say they want to take their defeated initiatives to the voters on Election Day. All 100 seats are up Nov. 8. Virginians also will pick a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
If Republicans win key races or pick up seats, "it sends a message to the Senate that says: '[House Republicans] put it to the voters. They have a mandate,' " said Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland). "When you run on a platform statewide, the members of your caucus are speaking off the same sheet of music."
Skeptics, however, said they doubted whether dozens of individual election victories would convince senators -- who are not up for election this year -- that delegates have a mandate on any particular issue. They also said that the nature of such races is that they are usually local affairs in which voters are not influenced significantly by a statewide agenda.
"Most elections are decided by local personalities and local issues," said J. Scott Leake, a political strategist for Virginia's Republican senators. He helped run a similar statewide strategy for the party's senators and delegates in 1995.
State Democratic leaders said they will run local races without overarching themes such as those advocated by Republicans. Democrats said that though their candidates will try to ride Warner's political coattails, there probably will not be a statewide campaign for House candidates. Several Democrats doubted whether House Republicans would succeed in their strategy.
"I'm not sure the evidence [of a mandate] would be convincing," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "There are going to be a half a dozen competitive races, and I don't think those are going to be decided by the issues that they would like to dictate."
Political observers said the House GOP approach underscores persistent tensions between the Republican delegates and senators over how to raise money for transportation and other services because the strategy appears aimed at gaining leverage over the Senate after the elections.
"This is the first maneuver in the battle the Senate has promised over transportation funding next year," said Robert D. Holsworth, a professor of politics at Virginia Commonwealth University. "What [delegates] are attempting to do is put the House on the moral high ground. . . . It's a way of saying, 'We had a plan approved by the voters.' "
Republican strategists said GOP incumbents and challengers would be able to modify the statewide party's agenda for their own races. Candidates also would be expected to run on issues of importance in their districts. Strategists added that the initiatives probably would be separate from the policy goals of former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, the GOP's likely candidate for governor, and are intended to stand alone no matter who is elected governor.
"The reality is when you want to make major change, it is helpful when the people have an opportunity to hear what you want to do," Athey said.