By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008
RICHMOND The hottest contest at the Virginia Republican Party convention next month might not be the one between Del. Robert G. Marshall and former governor James S. Gilmore for the nomination for Senate.
It could be the battle for state party chairman, which has taken a nasty turn and exposed a generational divide within the party.
Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (Prince William) is posing a serious challenge to Chairman John H. Hager, who is seeking reelection to the job he has held since August.
Frederick, 32, and Hager, 71, are crisscrossing Virginia to line up support from delegates, dispatching paid staffers to local GOP committee meetings and launching whisper campaigns about each other.
It's bare-knuckle politics at its finest, and the outcome could determine the direction of a state party that has been reeling from a string of losses, most recently in the November election for General Assembly.
Frederick says the party needs new leadership if it wants to regain its footing against the better-funded, better-organized state Democratic Party, which has flourished under the leadership of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner.
"We need bold new leadership," Frederick said in an interview. "Under Hager's watch, we lost four seats in the state Senate, and we lost five seats in the House. We are just a few seats away from losing control of the House [next year]. If we lose control, all the things we worked so hard on over the years will be erased."
But should GOP activists replace Hager, a tested public servant who appears to have been a stabilizing force for the party?
"I think the Republican Party of Virginia has righted the ship and is doing outstanding work," Hager said. "I am excited about the progress we are making. Stability and proven leadership is what RPV needs."
After languishing for years under past leaders, the state party does appear to be improving its operation with Hager.
The party has invested in technology, retooled its fundraising and helped lessen divisions between Republicans in the House and Senate.
In recent weeks, Hager has led coordination efforts between the state and national parties to fend off Democratic attempts to win the state's 13 electoral votes in this fall's presidential race.
On paper, at least, Frederick is an appealing candidate for a party desperate to end a losing streak.
He's relatively young and definitely energetic, saying the party must shift the focus to rebuilding its grass-roots organization, once a strength of the state party.
Frederick is Hispanic, and he lives in Northern Virginia. Electing him might make the Republican Party appear more receptive to the concerns of minorities and residents in Northern Virginia. Those groups are fueling the Democratic resurgence in the state.
Frederick, who operates a technology business, might also be able to tap new sources of money for the GOP.
Along with his wife, Amy, who is a savvy political strategist, Frederick has proved that he knows how to win elections.
Frederick, first elected in 2003, has been racking up surprisingly large election margins, even though he is one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly and represents a Democratic-leaning district.
"I know how to go out and reach out to different voters and bring them in so we can win," Frederick said.
But there are plenty of pitfalls in Frederick's candidacy.
In the House, Frederick has largely been marginalized by Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). Some legislators say Frederick can be arrogant, abrasive and self-absorbed, but he did pick up an endorsement last week from Del. Daniel W. Marshall III (R-Danville).
Frederick is also an outspoken anti-tax conservative -- he opposes efforts to raise more money for transportation -- and that might undercut his argument that he has a firm grasp of Northern Virginia's problems.
Hager, a former lieutenant governor, is also conservative but has had strong ties to the moderate wing of the party during his career.
If Frederick wins, he could worsen a split between the establishment-elected officeholders and the insurgency element of the party, largely made up of ambitious, young conservatives.
Frederick was one of those insurgents when he unseated moderate John A. "Jack" Rollison III five years ago. Some party leaders fear that Frederick would encourage more intraparty challenges. Many Republicans say that similar primary challenges last year, which cost two senators their jobs, helped the Democrats take control of the state Senate.
Frederick also has to make the case that he can handle the workload of a party chairman and a delegate while being chief executive of Alexandria-based GXS Strategies.
Hager, who is retired, works full time as chairman. And because he is able to attend party events, some activists say he is the most visible chairman they have had in years.
Patrick M. McSweeney, a former party chairman closely aligned with the conservative movement, said in a letter in February that he could not support Frederick for party chairman. Elected officials should not serve in that role, McSweeney said.
"One constituency or the other must inevitably suffer when those roles are combined in one person," McSweeney wrote in a letter to Frederick.
Despite those reservations, it appears that Republicans such as Frederick represent the future of the GOP. But making such a radical change in the middle of a presidential election year could be risky for a party that may have already reached its electoral low point.
Besides, do Virginia Republicans really want to put Jenna Bush's father-in-law on the unemployment line, especially when her father will also be out of a job come January?
For more Virginia politics, go tohttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/virginiapolitics.