By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007
The Republican Party will continue to lose elections unless it opens itself to social moderates, immigrants and other groups who look to government to protect public schools and reform health care, U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III said yesterday.
Finally announcing publicly what has been written and blogged about for days -- that he will not run for U.S. Senate next year -- Davis (R-Va.) said that state and national Republicans have failed to recognize how dramatically the country's electorate has changed. After years of preparing for a Senate bid, Davis said he would hold off for now in part because of what he sees as his party's increasingly narrow focus on candidates who pass conservative litmus tests.
"We're at a fork in the road right now, and we're standing still," Davis told journalists gathered in a room at a hotel in downtown Washington yesterday. "You give the Democrats ownership by not showing up and defining our position."
Davis, 58, whose moderate views on immigration, taxes and social issues play well with his political base in Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia, said his decision to pass on the Senate race was fueled mainly by the Republican State Central Committee's choice this month of a convention instead of a primary to nominate the party's candidate in the spring.
A convention is seen as favoring former governor James S. Gilmore III, whose right-leaning positions on taxes and social issues are more likely to appeal to the conservative Republicans who tend to participate in conventions. Gilmore is considering running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), but he has not announced his intentions.
Still, Davis, a seven-term congressman and former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, appears far from ready to withdraw from politics. He said his decision on whether to seek reelection to the House next year will come later. In addition, his choice of Washington journalists as his audience seemed to give him a national platform as a GOP critic. It is a role that could keep him relevant if the party continues to suffer.
Davis said President Bush's unpopularity is a big part of the GOP's problem. He said that the "face of the party" must change and that voters do not want "Bush III." He said Republican presidential contenders Rudolph W. Giuliani and U.S. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) have the independent streak that the party's new leaders must possess.
Davis also said his swipes at his party will "probably" help his wife, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), who is in a bruising campaign against Democrat J. Chapman Petersen. A win for Devolites Davis in an overwhelmingly Democratic district would send a powerful message to Republicans that Thomas Davis's message of moderation and consensus-building on issues such as gun control and highway funding is the proper model, the couple said.
"Maybe we should be talking to a different set of people," Davis said.
Some Republicans disagreed with Davis's assessment of the GOP. State Del. Leo C. Wardrup Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) said that a convention is the right platform to avoid a nasty and expensive primary that would drain the party in advance of a challenging U.S. Senate race against former governor Mark R. Warner (D).
But others said Davis is right. "For Republicans who want to get 51 percent next year, we need to keep looking for a [U.S. Senate] candidate," said David Avella of Alexandria, chairman of the 8th Congressional District Republican Committee. "For Republicans who want to get 39 percent, Jim Gilmore's their guy."
Davis did not rule out a future Senate run, such as a challenge to James Webb (D-Va.) in 2012. But he said that now is not the time to run, which would require enduring a GOP nomination fight with Gilmore and a battle against Mark Warner in the fall. A recent Washington Post poll showed Warner beating either Davis or Gilmore by more than 30 percentage points.
"Once you tear off the scab of the Republicans' moderate-conservative fight, it's very difficult to put it back together," Davis said, adding that he and Mark Warner share the same moderate base in Northern Virginia.
"Nobody's unbeatable, but he's formidable," Davis said. "Mark is a very affable guy, and he's got a lot of money. And he's got a formidable organization around the state."
Davis also said that he will support the party's nominee.
He said it is too soon for him to decide whether he will try to retain his House seat. But he said he held a fundraiser yesterday and attended the annual Vienna Halloween parade Wednesday.
"We'll talk about that another day," he said. "The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated."
Until yesterday, Davis had said he would wait until after the Nov. 6 elections to make a final announcement about his Senate plans. Even as word of his pending statement leaked yesterday, he said publicly that he was looking at numbers and keeping his options open.
Such apparent inconsistencies reflect the difficulty of the decision and Davis's habit of "thinking out loud," Devolites Davis said.
The Davises said they are exhausted after two years of nearly nonstop campaigning, for his reelection last year and her campaign this year. The thought of facing another race, they said, is wearisome.
"When's the last time we took a Saturday off and went to a football game and went out to dinner?" Davis asked yesterday. Running for Senate, he said, would mean "another year without any of that."