Republicans Prepare for Internal Fight

By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 17, 2006

RICHMOND, Nov. 15 -- Last week's defeat of Sen. George Allen has widened the rift between moderates and conservatives in Virginia's Republican Party, a rift that is likely to deepen at the GOP's annual meeting early next month.

Party leaders, elected Republicans and activists in both philosophical camps have been eager to blame one another for gridlock in the General Assembly and bitter disputes in the past. Now they are also looking to explain why they keep losing elections.

"It's cost us the governorship, and it's cost us the Senate seat," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R) of Fairfax, a leading moderate who argues that the Republican Party has ignored Northern Virginia and its growing number of Democratic voters at its own peril. "A lot of it is cultural. There is a cultural divide. You don't [win] by continuing to run people from one region exclusively."

Conservative Fairfax activist James Parmelee shot back that Republicans are losing because they have failed to take principled anti-tax stands, such as those championed by House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "Really, the message is, be more like the House of Delegates," Parmelee said Wednesday.

In this year's state legislative session, the House kept a hard line on tax increases while the state Senate, also run by Republicans, sought to raise taxes to pay for transportation improvements, a key issue for Northern Virginia.

This week, the state party's top officials, Chairman Kate Obenshain Griffin and Executive Director Shawn Smith, resigned, taking responsibility for presiding over two devastating losses: Allen's and Jerry W. Kilgore's in the governor's race last year.

A replacement for Griffin is expected soon. Some top Republicans are hoping the party taps former National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, a Fairfax County resident and senior Allen adviser who would bring star power and an ability to raise money for the strapped party. A decision will be announced at the party's annual meeting, called "the Advance," early next month.

Allen's loss to Democrat James Webb punctuates the dilemma for Republicans during the last three major elections in Virginia: Self-described independent voters are running away from the party.

In the Nov. 7 election, Allen won 44 percent of those votes, according to exit polls. Six years earlier, he won 58 percent of the votes cast by independents, a group that makes up about a third of Virginia voters.

Allen also saw the modest Democratic advantage in Northern Virginia during his 2000 race grow into a tidal wave this time. Six years ago, he lost the region by six percentage points. On Tuesday, voters in Northern Virginia preferred Webb by 20 points. Democrats also made gains in the growing Hampton Roads area and the Richmond suburbs.

"There are a lot of other reasons for his defeat," said Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), a leading moderate in the House. "But his message, obviously, didn't resonate. A continuing of the no-tax mantra is failing. Sooner or later, you have to face reality that you do have to pay for things."

The challenge for Virginia's Republicans is similar to that of the party across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, where voters who live outside big cities have been trending Democratic. Last week, suburban Philadelphia, which once served as the backbone of the state's GOP base, voted out two incumbent Republican congressmen.

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