By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005
For the losers, elections are about lessons.
On Nov. 9, Virginia's Republican Party began thinking about the next legislative election, in 2007, and governor's race, in 2009. The party faithful who gathered at the Homestead resort last weekend were eager to draw the right lessons from Jerry W. Kilgore's loss to Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) this year.
It is still early, but it appears that some in the party leadership are coalescing around the following lesson: Kilgore wasn't conservative enough for Virginia's electorate.
That message comes straight from the top -- party Chairman Kate Obenshain Griffin . In a speech Saturday, she exhorted Republicans to keep the faith. "The answer to maintaining our majority is not found in the analysis of liberal critics and media elite who argue that we must abandon the very principles that brought us to a governing majority," she said.
The lesson is also coming from the bottom: the party's true-blue foot soldiers, bloggers and activists who had vocally urged Kilgore to be more doctrinaire about taxes, abortion, guns and gays.
In a column published three weeks before the election, Phillip Rodokanakis , the head of an anti-tax group called the Virginia Club for Growth, attacked Kilgore for playing to the middle.
"The Kilgore camp fears that their candidate could be labeled an extremist if he espoused some of the positions advocated by these groups," Rodokanakis wrote. "Yet by failing to take a stand either for or against these positions, Kilgore has infuriated the entire membership of these organizations -- a membership that is very active in grass-roots politics."
The "not conservative enough" crowd points to the victories of the party's other two candidates, Lt. Gov.-elect William T. "Bill" Bolling and Attorney General-elect Robert F. McDonnell , as proof that candidates who run as conservatives can win.
"We stand for promises made and promises kept," former governor James S. Gilmore (R) said at the Homestead. "We will be doomed to minority status if we do not."
Virginia's Republican Party has been nursing deep divisions since 2001, when Gilmore's insistence on cutting the car tax crashed headfirst into the desire for investment among leading Republican senators.
Those divisions were ripped even further apart in 2004, when the two wings of the party openly revolted against each other over Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's proposed tax increases.
In the wake of Kilgore's loss and the defeat of several arch-conservative legislative candidates last month, the pro-investment wing of the Republican Party is offering a different lesson for the future.
Moderates from Northern Virginia, such as Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R), say Kilgore's failure was not connecting to issues that suburbanites care about: education, traffic and health care.
It is somewhat self-serving for Davis and Connaughton, who harbor ambitions for statewide office in Virginia. If the party concludes that Kilgore lost because he was a mushy centrist, it will not likely choose either Davis or Connaughton the next time around.
It is not only Northern Virginia Republicans who remain uncomfortable with the party's conservative zeal. Most state Senate Republicans, led by Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), are hoping to steer the party away from its more ideological roots toward a pragmatic conservatism grounded in what they call good financial management.
They have some allies in the House of Delegates, where several moderate Republicans are hoping the lesson for their party is that being extremist doesn't win legislative elections.
The first test could be right around the corner. Bolling's victory clears the way for Del. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) to run for the now-vacant Senate seat. A victory by McDougle, which is likely, would clear the way for another special election to fill his House seat.
Republicans have already identified their candidate for McDougle's seat: Chris Peace , a young lobbyist who is eager to make the jump to lawmaking. His selection, however, is causing tension within the party because of his affiliation with the Virginia Conservative Action PAC.
That group was at the forefront of an effort to oust moderate House Republicans who voted for the tax increases in 2004. On their Web site, Peace is listed as the Hanover County coordinator for the group and is pictured with its founder, Jerry Parker , at a victory party after the June primaries.
Conservatives are rallying behind Peace; moderates are vowing he won't get their money. In the end, he's likely to win in a very Republican district. The debate his candidacy has sparked within the Republican Party is a sign of bigger things to come.