By Tim Craig and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 14, 2007
RICHMOND, Oct. 13 -- Republican leaders decided Saturday to hold a convention to choose their nominee in next year's U.S. Senate race, delivering a setback to moderate Rep. Thomas M. Davis III and bolstering the chances of conservative former governor James S. Gilmore III.
The vote by the Republican State Central Committee means about 10,000 party activists will gather in June to decide who will face former governor Mark R. Warner (D) in the general election. Conventions that are limited to party activists generally favor conservative candidates, whereas moderates stand a better chance in open primaries that draw independents.
No Republicans have officially entered the race. But after the 47 to 37 vote in favor of a convention, Gilmore indicated that he is likely to run.
"They made a good decision, and that puts us in a position where at least we have the opportunity to compete with Mark Warner," said Gilmore, who briefly ran for the presidential nomination before dropping out of the race this year.
Some Republicans said privately that the decision to hold a convention could discourage Davis from running. He didn't attend the meeting yesterday, but advisers who did said Davis wouldn't be afraid to fight it out with Gilmore at a convention.
"I wouldn't underestimate Tom Davis's ability to win a convention," said John Hishta, a Davis adviser. "He has the ability to communicate with activists around the state and has a strong base among Republicans in Northern Virginia."
Davis and Gilmore plan to finalize their decisions after the Nov. 6 election.
Gilmore had argued in favor of a convention, in which county committees select delegates, because it would save the candidates money and help energize the GOP base for the fall campaign. Strategists say it costs candidates about $4 million to compete in a primary, compared with about $1 million to compete in a convention. Gilmore said he feared a primary could leave the eventual nominee broke by summer, when Warner is likely to begin advertising.
Davis, who has ties to donors nationwide, countered that a primary would have allowed the GOP to reach out to a broader audience.
"It's battle-testing our candidate for the type of campaign they have to make in a general election," said David Avella, a Davis supporter and member of the central committee.
After the vote, Gilmore said he is starting to focus on a possible general election campaign against Warner. Although his aborted presidential campaign ended in debt, Gilmore said he would be able to raise the millions of dollars he would need to compete with Warner, a wealthy businessman with a proven ability to raise money who served as governor from 2002 to 2006.
Gilmore also played down a Washington Post poll published Friday that showed him trailing Warner by 30 points.
"I would hate to see a point in Virginia where a $200 million man can buy a Senate seat, and I don't think that is going to be the case," said Gilmore, who was governor from 1998 to 2002. "We are going to look at the issues and records of our respective governorships."
Although The Post's poll found Gilmore beating Davis 53 to 29 among conservatives and 2 to 1 among white evangelical Protestants, several Republicans said Saturday that Davis shouldn't be underestimated at a convention. He has raised more than $1 million for a possible bid and has spent years cultivating a network of supporters.
"I think Tom Davis is going to be much stronger in parts of Virginia than people believe," said Tucker Watkins, chairman of the party's 5th District congressional committee.
Several party leaders have rallied to his side. Chris LaCivita, a veteran GOP strategist with ties to the conservative wing of the state party, is working for Davis. J. Kenneth Klinge, who has been helping GOP candidates win state conventions for decades, is also a Davis adviser.
If he runs, Davis is likely to argue to GOP activists that he is the more viable candidate in a general election matchup against Warner.
The Post poll found Gilmore's approval rating stands at 40 percent, a sharp decline since he was elected governor. Davis's approval rating stood at 28 percent, but 54 percent of residents said they didn't know him well enough to form an opinion. The poll also found that Davis is the stronger GOP candidate against Warner in vote-rich Northern Virginia.
If the election were held today, Warner would beat Gilmore by 35 points in Northern Virginia, while Davis would limit Warner's advantage to 22 points, according to the poll.
"George Allen lost Northern Virginia by over 120,000 votes, and Republicans just simply can't come out of that region anymore, in this state, by that much and win," Hishta said.
Gilmore notes that he won Fairfax County during his 1993 bid for attorney general and again when he ran for governor in 1997.
"I have run twice statewide. I have won twice statewide. . . . I carried Northern Virginia twice statewide, and I have every reason to believe we are going to be able to unify our party, and that will make a big difference," Gilmore said.
If Davis and Gilmore seek the nomination, many are expecting a heated campaign. During yesterday's debate, party leaders sharply disagreed about whether a primary or convention would be more divisive. In a primary, some said, both sides would slug it out in TV ads, while a convention battle would be waged largely out of public view.
"The problem is these two have histories, and when you have candidates that are historied and very experienced in campaigns, it is going to get dirty," said Bruce Meyer, chairman of the 2nd District congressional committee. "We have to go up against Mark Warner. We cannot air out dirty laundry. We have to keep it in-house."
James E. Rich, chairman of the 10th district committee, countered that "there is no need for us to be afraid to go to the public."
"Ladies and gentleman, we need to go to the public," Rich said while arguing for a primary. "We have been losing ground because we have not been bringing new people into the system. We have to make it easier for people to be involved."