State Republicans in Search of a Strong Leader

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

RICHMOND Virginia Republicans are feeling the stress of having no clear statewide leader, a predicament made worse after GOP chairman Ed Gillespie stepped down last week to join the Bush administration.

Since James S. Gilmore III (R) left the governor's office in 2002, Virginia Democrats have controlled the seat, which has allowed the party to raise large amounts of campaign money and soothe its network of activists.

The power -- and promise -- of the governor's pulpit was evident in this spring's legislative primaries.

Fueled by an ongoing intraparty squabble over taxes, GOP conservatives challenged several moderate state senators in last week's primary who had supported Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner's tax increase packages.

In Newport News, conservative Tricia B. Stall unseated Sen. Martin E. Williams and in Roanoke, former mayor Ralph K. Smith defeated Sen. J. Brandon Bell II.

Because there was no party leader who stepped in to thwart the conservative effort, Republican strategists say their continued majority in the Senate is now less certain. Democrats now plan to challenge Stall and Smith, meaning Republicans will have to defend seats they had assumed would be safe in the Nov. 6 election.

Democrats need to pick up four seats to retake the Virginia Senate, and strategists from both parties think there are at least seven Republican-held seats that could be in play.

"There are a lot of dicey races around Virginia and certainly Williams and Bell getting beat expands the number of races that are going to be fought over," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), who is being challenged by Democrat Janet S. Oleszek. "It means the money will get spread around more."

If the GOP had a strong statewide leader, party officials say they might have been able to avoid the conservatives' challenges to the moderates, who may be more electable in a general election. Gillespie, who was supposed to start healing the rifts within the party, announced last week that he was leaving after seven months as party chairman to become President Bush's White House counselor. "It matters," said J. Scott Leake, a Republican strategist. "We really haven't had a strong party chairman or unifying figure who has played a big role since Gilmore and Allen were in the governorship."

The differences between Democratic and Republican efforts to micromanage the outcome of nominating contests in competitive districts was evident in the race to replace retiring Del. Michele B. McQuigg (R-Prince William).

Lawyer Faisal Gill of Lake Ridge won the nominating contest to replace McQuigg, even though many GOP leaders supported his opponent. Many Republicans fear that Gill could be vulnerable in a general election because bloggers have raised questions about his recent tenure as an employee at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Kaine, by comparison, appears to have a played a role in Democratic candidate Jeff Dion's decision to end his campaign for McQuigg's seat. Prince William County Democrats say Kaine, as well as Warner, urged Dion to drop out of the race because they feared he couldn't win. Dion, who is openly gay, had come under attack from bloggers. Lawyer Paul Nichols is now the Democratic candidate.

Kaine has also stepped in to keep incumbent Democrats in the General Assembly from retiring, which will make it easier for the party to defend its seats.

In April, Kaine persuaded Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), who was first elected in 1975, to run for another term even though he had hinted earlier in the year he may retire. Kaine's political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward, then donated $20,000 to Colgan's campaign.

Colgan's decision meant there were no retirements this year of Democratic delegates or senators, which makes it harder for the Republicans to pick up seats. By contrast, three Republican senators and eight delegates are retiring.

The news isn't all bad for the GOP.

For the first time in recent memory, there were no primary challenges to GOP delegates who sought reelection, which allowed them to stockpile money for the general election.

Republicans also think they have a good shot at unseating as many as three Democratic senators, which would all but secure their continued Senate majority.

Republicans plan to target Colgan and Sens. R. Edward Houck (Spotsylvania) and William Roscoe Reynolds (Franklin), all of whom represent districts that supported then-U.S. Sen. George Allen (R) over the winner, James Webb (D), in last year's U.S. Senate race.

Republicans have also been chuckling that Democrats nominated Joe Morrissey, a disbarred lawyer, in the 74th House District, which includes part of Richmond.

Republicans, however, begin their fall campaign without a party chairman.

Charlie Judd, executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, and former lieutenant governor John Hager are the two leading candidates to replace Gillespie.

But it's unclear whether either Judd or Hager can be an effective public face and behind-the-scenes broker. Party officials say such a person is needed to prevent, as Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) said he worries is occurring, a sense of malaise from setting in.

The leadership vacuum presents an opportunity for Allen, state Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), all mentioned as possible candidates for governor, to prove they can take charge of the GOP.

Party activists should be prepared to offer big rewards -- such as a new job -- to whoever emerges as the next counterweight to Kaine.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company