Va. Republicans Hear Contrasting Messages in Election Defeat

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, November 8, 2007

There's nothing quite like a good whupping to clarify the need for change. When Virginia Republicans went down to defeat in Fairfax, Loudoun and throughout the state Tuesday, the lesson was simple and direct: To avoid losing Northern Virginia for many years to come, the Republican Party must moderate its message.

"This is not a blip," says Sen. Russ Potts, the moderate Republican from Winchester who is retiring in part because of his party's rightward turn. "This is a change in the face of Virginia politics for the next 20 years. This business of no-tax pledges and no-abortions, no-exceptions is not going to fly. The party desperately needs to widen the circle."

But hold on. There was another message in the GOP inbox on the morning after: To avoid becoming irrelevant in the state's most populous region, the party must stick with its conservative principles.

"We already moderated our message, and look what happened," says Jim Parmelee, president of Republicans United for Tax Relief and a conservative activist in Fairfax. "We raised taxes and added a layer of regional government for transportation, and it didn't work. It's time to go back to basics and use the issues that got us into office."

Okay, maybe the lessons from Tuesday aren't quite so clear.

In fact, both wings of the GOP can find evidence in this vote to justify their strategies for coping in a once solidly red state that now features Democrats controlling the state Senate, serving as governor and U.S. senator and holding majorities in the two biggest population centers, the Washington suburbs and Hampton Roads.

Those who believe Republicans must be pragmatic and compromise on some bedrock social principles point to the resounding defeat of GOP supervisors in Loudoun, where popular frustration over unbridled growth flipped the county board from a 6-1 Republican majority to 5-2 Democratic control (there are also two independents).

In Potts's district, which extends from fast-suburbanizing western Loudoun to rural Frederick, Fauquier and Clarke counties, conservative Republican Jill Holtzman Vogel beat Democrat Karen Schultz. But Holtzman Vogel had to raise a record $1.5 million to do so, and even then she won by only 650 votes in a district Potts won by 17 percentage points four years ago.

"The change is coming fast, and it's not just in Fairfax," says Potts. If the GOP doesn't reach out to moderates and independents, Fairfax, by far Virginia's richest vein of votes, will become forbidden territory. Starting in January, Democrats will represent Fairfax residents in Richmond by an 8 to 1 margin in the Senate and by 14 to 3 in the House.

But turn your perspective around, and the evidence for a return to conservative basics mounts. Republicans who did try to tack to the center got their heads handed to them. In Fairfax, Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis tried to run to the left of her Democratic challenger on guns, gays and God, and she's out of a job. In Prince William County, conservatives best known for their emphasis on social issues -- Dels. Jeff Frederick and Bob Marshall, for example -- prevailed.

The one point on which moderates and conservatives seem to agree is that their party overplayed the illegal immigration issue. "They went for a magic bullet with immigration, and it didn't work," says a conservative strategist who doesn't want his name used because his clients don't agree that immigration is a losing issue. Prince William County board Chairman Corey Stewart, the strategist says, "won last year as the anti-tax and anti-growth candidate, and he ended up in the same place this year. He pushed hard on immigration, but it didn't move his numbers" in his reelection victory Tuesday.

Moderates say harsh rhetoric on immigration repelled independent voters. Northern Virginians "know this crackdown on illegal immigration was posturing," Potts says. "The only entity in the world that could solve that problem is the federal government."

But Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who plans to run for governor in 2009, says his party was right to focus on immigration because it's "the issue people are most concerned about." Republicans need not tack either right or center because Tuesday's vote was not a statement about the state's GOP, he says. "Any other year, all those candidates in close races win. These losses were more a factor of perceptions on the war or President Bush or the Republican label."

Next year, Virginia threatens to be in play in the presidential race (although President Bush won the state by eight percentage points in 2004, Democrats Gov. Tim Kaine and Sen. Jim Webb won in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties in '05 and '06, respectively.) With the highly popular Mark Warner atop the ballot running for Senate, Republicans will search for a way to reconnect with voters who believe the party is demagoguing on emotional issues rather than addressing their quality-of-life concerns.

If Republicans in Richmond find ways to ease the strains of speedy growth in Washington's outer suburbs, you'll know the party is threading a path between its moderates and its true believers.

But if the party's agenda focuses instead on abortion, guns and immigration, watch for Virginia to end 2008 with an even more Democratic face.

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