Wife's Reelection Race a Barometer for Davis

Rep. Tom Davis, center, and wife Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, a state senator, chat with Terry Clark during a community picnic in Fairfax.
Rep. Tom Davis, center, and wife Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, a state senator, chat with Terry Clark during a community picnic in Fairfax. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007

When Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who is preparing for a possible run for the Senate next year, says he is focusing on state legislative races for the next two months, what he really means is that he is focusing on one race in particular: that of his wife, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax).

Davis the state lawmaker is sprinting to hold on to her job representing an increasingly Democratic-leaning district in one of the most hotly contested competitions of the year. And Davis the congressman is running hard for her. Literally.

On Saturday, he ran a 5K race at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna while his wife shook hands and talked to voters. And yesterday, the 58-year-old ran another one (albeit a tad more slowly) at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax City, afterward doling out prizes and greeting the stragglers as they crossed the finish line. In between, the Davises made eight appearances together: at picnics, festivals, two black-tie balls. The state senator even sent her husband out yesterday afternoon for some door-knocking on his own.

"You'll find my husband at the back of the pack," Davis, 51, joked before starting yesterday's footrace with a bullhorn.

Helping his wife is one good reason for Davis to wait until after Nov. 6 to announce whether he will try to succeed Sen. John W. Warner (R), who will retire in early 2009.

If she loses in a Senate district that is almost entirely contained within his 11th Congressional District, it could mean that his hold on Northern Virginia is not as strong as it needs to be for a statewide win. If she wins, it could be interpreted to mean that both are electable even at an adverse time for Republicans.

If Davis the congressman were to win the Republican nomination for Warner's Senate seat, he would face former governor -- and more important, fellow Northern Virginian -- Mark R. Warner (D), who announced his plan to run last week.

"If Jeannemarie wins, think of what that says about Tom and Jeannemarie in this very tough year for Republicans," said state Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax). "That's going to send a positive message for any prospects he's got statewide."

State senator Davis's Democratic challenger is J. Chapman Petersen, a Fairfax lawyer who served in the Virginia House of Delegates and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2005. Davis carries a clear financial advantage; she had $530,000 in the bank at the end of June, while Petersen had $225,000, according to the campaign finance database of the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.

But Petersen, 39, is described by Republicans and Democrats as among the hardest-working challengers in this election, knocking, by his own count, on about 16,000 doors this year. As a former Fairfax City Council member, he also has some name recognition in that part of the Senate district. And he's got a few resonant issues: his opponent's affiliation with the party of an unpopular President Bush and her vote this year for a transportation package that included steep -- and controversial -- abusive-driver fines.

Petersen said that having two Davises campaign against him doesn't affect his chances or his message, which is to send "new leadership" to the state Senate.

"This race has been competitive from the day it began," Petersen said yesterday. "I don't think anybody would doubt that."

Proving Davis's electability -- and by association, his own -- carries another advantage for the congressman: It could convince state Republican leaders that he is a better candidate than former governor James S. Gilmore III to challenge Warner next fall.

Davis is hoping that the party will choose a primary, instead of a convention, to select its Senate nominee, because his moderate stands on most issues would play better with a wider audience. A convention would give the advantage to the more conservative Gilmore.

Davis also believes that his moderation would play better than Gilmore's conservatism in a general election against Warner.

The GOP will decide next month. That is the other reason Davis is waiting until after Nov. 6 to announce his plans. He said yesterday that he is still mulling over whether to run at all, and the convention vs. primary decision will be a big part of his decision.

"Right now, it's hard to elect a Republican dogcatcher against a Doberman," Davis said. "Some want to limit participation [by holding a convention]. That's no way to expand the party. That's not the direction we need to go right now."

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