Davis Has a Few Warnings for His Possible Successor

GOP congressman Tom Davis and his wife, ex-lawmaker Jeannemarie Devolites Davis.
GOP congressman Tom Davis and his wife, ex-lawmaker Jeannemarie Devolites Davis. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

F or years, Northern Virginia congressman Tom Davis used good old-fashioned politics to cheat the shifting demographics of his Fairfax-centered district. As the population grew more ethnically diverse and politically liberal, Davis, one of the last of the commonwealth's moderate Republican officeholders, held on, maintaining the loyalty of a core of otherwise Democratic-leaning federal workers by fighting for their interests. Davis was the suburban version of a classic city ward-heeler.

But this year, following the defeat of his wife, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, in her state Senate reelection bid, Davis decided that seven terms in the House was enough. Now, with Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerry Connolly preparing to take on Republican Keith Fimian in the November election to succeed Davis, the congressman tells me he believes his seat can stay red. I almost believed he was speaking out of more than mere party obligation -- but not quite.

"He's a credible candidate," Davis says of his party's choice to follow him. Fimian, a local businessman chosen in part because of his ability to pump a lot of his own money into the race, "will have John Warner and me right behind him," Davis says.

Davis contends that despite the success of Democratic governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as well as Sen. Jim Webb in recent Fairfax elections, there are still plenty of moderates and independents who have no trouble voting for a Republican. Although then-Sen. George Allen lost to Webb by 40,000 votes in Davis's district in the 2006 "macaca" election, Davis that same year won by 35,000 votes (although he faced far less high-powered opposition.)

Davis argues that he could have won this time, too. "My independence was bolstered by the way the state party gave me the finger," he said, by refusing to let Davis and ex-governor Jim Gilmore compete in a primary to see who would represent the GOP in this fall's U.S. Senate race against Mark Warner.

By insisting on a convention rather than a primary, party leaders sought to ensure Gilmore a clear shot at the nomination. As it turned out, Del. Bob Marshall from Prince William County nearly knocked off Gilmore at the convention with a challenge from the right. In that scenario, with Gilmore and Marshall competing for the conservative votes, might Davis have slipped through to victory? Probably not, because conventions are dominated by activists who tend to be on the party's right flank.

Now, with Connolly all but anointed as the November victor by many Democrats, Davis says Fimian's job is to spend freely to introduce himself to the district and then harp on Connolly's controversial record as a county leader who was a favorite of big-business interests.

Davis concedes that Fairfax is Obama country: "This is one district where Obama is stronger than Clinton would have been in the general election. It's a more affluent and educated area. But McCain will do much better in Northern Virginia than George Allen did."

Connolly should be careful not to run an us-vs.-them economics campaign, Davis advises. "This is still the most affluent district in the country. It's not a place for railing against the rich and free trade."

Fimian's great challenge will be to run apart from, if not away from, President Bush, Davis says. "What's happening across the country is a reaction against Bush," he says. And Davis says Fimian will lack the key advantage that let Davis keep winning by healthy margins in an increasingly Democratic district: "The thing that I had that Keith won't is the deep support among federal employees. That's the result of years and years of work on their behalf." But Davis adds that Fimian has an advantage of his own: "He's much better looking than I am."

Still, Connolly has to feel a sense of relief. His easy win over Democratic opponent Leslie Byrne in last week's primary demonstrated that despite the very low turnout, whatever controversies Connolly has landed in as Fairfax chairman he retains a strong following, one a Republican newcomer will be hard pressed to fight against in a district that just isn't what it used to be.

Today at noon: Raw Fisher Radio presents a conversation on the state of Virginia's Republican Party, with new party chairman Jeffrey Frederick of Prince William County and Vince Callahan, former delegate from Fairfax County. Go tohttp://washingtonpost.com/rawfisherradio


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