By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
RICHMOND, June 2 -- Saturday's Virginia Republican Party convention, at which conservatives ousted the state party chairman and put a scare into former governor James S. Gilmore III's senatorial hopes, will have lasting consequences on state policy and the direction of the GOP, several Republicans said Monday.
For the second straight year, social and anti-tax conservatives dominated the nomination process, sending a clear signal to GOP legislators and office-seekers that they need to oppose taxes and abortion to succeed.
"This is a message that the grass roots still have a controlling voice when they choose to," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), a conservative candidate for attorney general. "There was a strong pro-life statement, and I do think there was an unusual show of strength by a base that everybody already knows doesn't want a tax increase."
The convention came three weeks before the General Assembly is scheduled to return to Richmond to consider a proposal by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to raise taxes to pay for transportation improvements. The results from Saturday will probably embolden the House Republican majority to oppose Kaine's plan, GOP leaders said.
"It clearly proves our base does not want a large tax increase," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "I think anybody who was at the convention got that feeling."
But some moderate Republicans fear that they no longer have a place in the party and that the party's shift to the right is coming as the state is tilting left. They say the GOP has been hurt in recent statewide elections, including Kaine's and Sen. James Webb's (D-Va.), because of the orthodoxy.
"I think you are seeing a cataclysmic episode in the decline of the Republican Party of Virginia," said former delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., a moderate Republican who represented McLean from 1968 to this year. "It took us 30 years to build up this party, and now it is slipping away. . . . The Republican Party has gotten out of touch with the general electorate."
On Saturday, about 3,000 GOP activists attended the convention to cast 10,378 votes for candidates for U.S. Senate and state party chairman. (Delegates in some counties got more than one vote.)
In the chairman's race, a coalition of social and anti-tax conservatives teamed to support Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (R-Prince William). The conservative unseated moderate John H. Hager, a former lieutenant governor.
In the Senate race, many conservatives rallied around Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), a fierce opponent of abortion and taxes. Marshall campaigned against Gilmore, saying the former governor supports abortion rights until the eighth week of pregnancy. Marshall also led the fight against the 2006 transportation deal because it included higher taxes.
Gilmore won at the convention by less than one percentage point. It was Gilmore who had requested that the GOP Senate candidate be chosen by a convention rather than a primary. The decision prompted Rep. Tom Davis (R-Fairfax), a moderate, to abandon his Senate bid before it began because he knew he probably wouldn't prevail at a convention.
Marshall, who was outspent by Gilmore by more than 8 to 1, said his campaign proves that statewide Republican candidates have to oppose abortion rights if they want to be nominated.
"Those people were not there for Bob Marshall," he said. "They were there for a message of hope and life."
Marshall said Monday that he will probably not endorse Gilmore unless he promises to push for a total ban on abortion, a stance that could undercut Gilmore in a general election against Democratic candidate Mark R. Warner, the popular former governor.
Fifty-four percent of Virginians think abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances, according to a Washington Post poll last summer.
Gilmore, who has held the same position on abortion since he was governor, said he has fought for a late-term abortion ban, 24-hour waiting periods and parental notification laws.
"Our message to conservative voters in Virginia is that they have a clear choice in the upcoming U.S. Senate elections, to vote for the former governor [Gilmore] which signed every single pro-family, pro-life legislation that came to his desk" or support Warner, said Ana Gamonal, a Gilmore spokeswoman.
The campaign between Gilmore and Marshall, during which both claimed to be the more conservative candidate, has left some moderate Republicans dispirited.
"We have jumped off the deep end, and we are just going to create a party of unelected candidates if Jim Gilmore isn't conservative enough," said former state senator Martin E. Williams, a moderate Republican from Hampton Roads.
Last year, Williams and then-Sen. J. Brandon Bell II of Roanoke were unseated during the GOP primary by conservatives angered over their support for tax increases. Patricia Stall, the Republican who defeated Williams, lost the general election to John C. Miller (D-Newport News), which allowed Democrats to win the majority in that chamber.
Despite the possible ramifications in a general election, several Republicans said most GOP delegates and senators are more worried about a backlash from conservatives if they support higher taxes to pay for transportation.
"Everybody is answering to the 3,000 people who show up at party conventions, and no one is answering to the [millions] who want some roads," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who added that both parties need to be mindful of their base but strive for middle ground.
Frederick, 32, said his conservative views about taxes will strengthen the state Republican Party.
"The citizens, they want somebody who stands for something," Frederick said.