By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Virginia Republicans said yesterday that the defeat of two moderate GOP state senators by conservatives could further divide the two wings of the party, which could affect the direction of state government.
The losses might signal a new, more conservative Republican caucus in the Senate that might mirror the House of Delegates more closely, party officials said.
Still, party leaders said, conservatives fell short of their goal of taking over the Republican caucus. Although two moderate senators lost, two survived. Several GOP senators said yesterday that they will continue to work with Democrats on major issues. Even so, the election results hold what could be troubling signs for the party as it heads into the fall general election campaign and the 2008 presidential contest: Virginia Republicans appear to be in a funk.
"We had a terrible time getting known [Republican] supporters to go vote," said J. Scott Leake, a GOP strategist who worked to reelect several of his party's moderate senators.
Yesterday, the GOP lost its chairman, Ed Gillespie, who was brought in eight months ago in part to try to heal the division. Gillespie was named counselor to President Bush.
Party strategists said they were trying to determine how a grass-roots network of conservatives unseated Sen. Martin E. Williams (Newport News), chairman of the influential transportation committee, and J. Brandon Bell II (Roanoke).
It was the first time in at least a decade that two senators were defeated in a party primary.
In the days leading up to the primary, party strategists had expected that Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), a moderate who supported several recent tax increases, would easily defeat conservative Joe Blackburn.
But Stosch, who spent nearly $1 million compared with $250,000 by Blackburn, eked out a victory of only 262 votes, or less than 1 percent.
"We identified and knew who are voters are, but at 2 p.m. we were woefully short of what we expected our favorable turnout would be of the people I knew who were for us," Leake said of Tuesday.
Conservatives, meanwhile, appeared eager to vote against the moderates, who have worked with two successive Democratic governors to try to raise taxes.
Some attributed Bell's loss to his support for a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants and his backing of recent tax increases.
Williams, who has a reputation for being brash toward constituents, fended off criticism of his vote in favor of a plan approved this year that allows local governments in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia to raise taxes to pay for roads.
The conservatives' success occurred two years after they largely failed to punish House Republicans who voted for then-Gov. Mark R. Warner's (D) 2004 tax package.
In 2005, the Virginia Conservative Action political action committee tried to unseat six of 17 of those delegates. But only one of the targeted Republicans lost.
Williams's and Bell's losses come as three other moderate Senate Republicans -- President John H. Chichester (Northumberland), H. Russell Potts Jr. (Winchester) and Charles R. Hawkins (Chatham) -- are retiring.
"I would say you got an absolute earthquake in the Virginia state Senate," said Republican strategist Ray Allen. "I predict you will not see a move in the Senate to raise taxes again."
But Democrats and even some Republicans say the conservatives might regret their decisions come Nov. 6. Democrats need to pick up four seats to regain control of the Senate.
"In a small turnout election, these voters can make a difference. But in a general election, they may get swallowed up," said retiring Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax).
Williams lost to Tricia B. Stall, who has signed a petition expressing support for "ending government involvement in education."
Even though Stall will be running in a reliably Republican district, party leaders fear that she is so conservative it could be nearly impossible for them to keep a Democratic candidate from picking up the seat. Top Republican senators plan to meet with Stall in a few days.
Potts, a maverick who is considering endorsing the Democrat running to replace him instead of conservative GOP nominee Jill Holtzman Vogel, called Tuesday's election a "huge opportunity for the Democrats."
"If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, it will almost be as far right and radical as the House of Delegates, and that is bad news for Virginia," Potts said.
But several Republicans said yesterday that the Senate, regardless of which party wins control, will still serve as a foil to the more conservative House. Unlike the delegates, senators have traditionally been more willing to work with members of the opposite party.
"There are certainly 21 pragmatic people in the Senate still," said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), who is seeking reelection. This GOP "election just changed two seats out of 40."