Campaign Further Divides Va. GOP
Many in County Aren't Supporting Pr. William Leader
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page B01
He's the self-described "happy warrior" of Prince William County. Armed with more confidence than experience, county board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) has, over the past four years, bested his political opponents, become the dominant politician in the county and cruised to a 70 percent reelection victory last November.
But he's no favorite son to many top Republicans in his home county, who consider Connaughton -- an antiabortion rights, pro-gun, pro-business Navy veteran -- nothing less than a squishy moderate. Now, as Connaughton, 43, travels the state campaigning for lieutenant governor, some prominent Prince William Republicans are actively backing his opponent, whom they consider the real conservative in the race.
"Not having a majority of support in his home area is a liability," said Rick Hendrix, a Prince William representative to the GOP state central committee who is supporting a Connaughton rival. "People will wonder about that."
Connaughton's conundrum is the latest example of the ideological split in the Virginia GOP. The recent budget battle in Richmond wound up splitting the GOP majorities in both houses and handing a victory to the state's Democratic governor. Victors said the budget debate showed the limit of the anti-tax movement in Virginia and proved voters also are interested in quality services.
Connaughton, a lawyer, will set out to test that theory. His campaign is highlighting Prince Williams's progress in building schools, roads and fire stations and providing plenty of money to improve county schools. His chief opponent in the lieutenant governor's race happens to be one of the state's strongest anti-tax activists, Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover). The race will be a clean matchup of messages: "good government" versus "anti-tax."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a Connaughton supporter and adviser, said the hometown sniping comes from ideologues who have more passion than strength in numbers.
"Sean is the favorite son. I think Sean will win. He's a better candidate, represents a bigger area and represents the new Virginia. He is more in touch with the changing Republican electorate,'' Davis said.
On a recent evening, Connaughton was four hours away from home, sitting at a chain steakhouse near a mall in Chesapeake, waiting to give his pitch to the local Republican committee. The restaurant sat across from another newish strip mall, home to a pawnshop, a Coast Guard recruiting station and a beauty parlor called "Hair Jordan."
The neighborhood, a melange of left-turn lanes, drive-through fast food joints, put-'em-up-quick townhouses and drainage ponds masquerading as lush lakes, could well be in Prince William, one of the fastest-growing places in the country. Prince William, the second most populous county in the state next to Fairfax, has been struggling to keep up with its burgeoning population.
Connaughton's campaign brochure, under the heading of "Proven Leader,'' says Connaughton "doubled the number of schools built, dramatically increased the number of police and fire personnel and fixed local roads without raising taxes."
The last part, "without raising taxes," is highlighted in bold letters.
He hands out a stack of brochures to the party activists in Chesapeake. "I want to bring the success of Prince William to the state," Connaughton tells them. Above him, on the wall, is a framed sign that reads: "If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes."
It is the "Prince William Miracle" at which his local opponents are taking aim. They say that instead of a miracle worker, Connaughton is a champion of big government who has presided over an era of skyrocketing taxes and government spending. And they are prepared to tell the rest of the state about it.
Far from cutting taxes or not raising taxes, Connaughton acknowledged that the average tax bill has gone up by a third during his watch. But he said some of that has to do with the increasing size and value of new homes in the county in recent years.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Prince William County board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, right, candidate for lieutenant governor, talks to Neil Miller, 28, of Arlington.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)