The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

GOP Money Man Builds Power in Va.

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 1999; Page B01

Using campaign cash as his calling card, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R) is wielding influence in the state Republican Party this fall to a degree that no Virginia member of Congress has exercised in decades, political analysts and party leaders say.

The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee has steered nearly $600,000 to 41 General Assembly candidates and has vowed to raise close to $1 million by Election Day through the House GOP campaign fund, his own fund-raising committee and related giving.

The push by Davis, 50, breaks the mold of recent Virginia politics, which has revolved around the governor's throne in Richmond since the retirement of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. (D) in 1965.

"It's unprecedented. That's the idea," Davis said last week of his effort. "Northern Virginia needs to be on the political map right now. The governor is from Richmond. [Former governor George] Allen is from Charlottesville. We need to have folks in the high councils in the party who are going to make sure our region is going to be given a fair shake."

Davis's moves, however, have made waves in state party circles.

Senior Republicans in Richmond who speak with both camps describe a "friendly competition" for Republican leadership between Davis and Gov. James S. Gilmore III, which all involved are anxious to manage, given the party-splintering ideological and personal feuds that crippled both Democrats and Republicans earlier this decade.

"There certainly is a rivalry," said Lt. Gov. John H. Hager (R), echoing party strategists, "but it's somewhat selective. It's a desire to help candidates of like philosophical mind . . . who will benefit areas of the state where their interests lie."

Both sides emphasize that their main focus is on winning GOP control of the General Assembly on Nov. 2. Still, it's not unusual to hear political operatives in the Davis and Gilmore camps attempting to keep tabs on precisely what the other side is doing this fall.

Hager said Davis and Gilmore should get used to seeing each other's name mentioned for, say, a future Senate contest: "History unfolds in interesting ways. The best thing to say is, 'Stay tuned.' "

The state GOP chairman, Sen. J. Randy Forbes (Chesapeake), said the rising prominence of Davis and other party leaders is a reflection of party strength, but he added that a destructive competition of egos "is something the party has to make sure does not happen."

For now, Republicans active in this fall's campaign are content to share credit if they win in November and to pull together until then. Davis has followed the lead of Gilmore's Richmond political team, they added, which has financed the campaign's intensive polling and strategic work.

"Virginia's a big state," said Gilmore spokesman Mark A. Miner. "Congressman Davis has been extremely helpful to the party in these elections."

The attention given Davis, who is a former chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County, stems from his base in Virginia's most populous county and his ability to raise money.

This year, Davis has used his campaign accounts to extend his influence in the suburbs of Washington and beyond. He has sent about 40 percent of his donations to Republicans in his 11th District in Fairfax and Prince William. The rest has gone to parts of the state where he is less well known, aiding moderates as well as conservative activists with whom he has clashed.

Davis's funds come from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which raises money nationally for GOP House campaigns, as well as his own state political action committee, the Virginia Victory Fund, and personal supporters. The congressional committee draws from a wide range of corporate and GOP donors, while Davis's PAC largely taps Northern Virginia technology, real estate and federal contractor firms.

Richmond political scientist Robert D. Holsworth calls Davis an emerging Virginia GOP "godfather" and the "$800 million gorilla" from suburban Washington, positioned to advance in the U.S. House if Republicans keep control next year or make a run for U.S. Senate or even governor should the opportunity arise.

"Davis has an extraordinarily strong regional base, he is an incredibly formidable campaigner, and he now sits on a gold mine" at the GOP's national congressional committee, Holsworth said. "He's in the enviable position of having numerous options in a party where there's an emerging logjam" of elected officials.

The GOP bench includes Allen, who is running against Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) next year, Hager and Attorney General Mark L. Earley, who are both set to run for governor in 2001, and Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte and Gilmore, who might look to succeed Sen. John W. Warner (R) some day.

Davis "is setting himself up to be the kingmaker in Republican politics in the state," said Charlie Cook, a congressional analyst and columnist. "The question is, 'Can he ever be king?' "

That last refers to sentiment among Virginia Republicans that Davis's past differences with the party's conservative leaders could doom his nomination for governor or senator. Last winter, the Family Research Council criticized Davis for meeting with gay Republican groups and joined the Christian Coalition and Eagle Forum in opposing his election as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman.

For now, Davis said he has no plans beyond retaining GOP control of the House and his seat in the next two years.

Whatever his political plans, Davis will likely be helped by the gratitude of those he's assisted in this year's tough campaigning.

" 'Thank you' could not be written in enormous enough letters," said state Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax), a supporter in Davis's district who has been his greatest beneficiary, receiving $60,000 against former U.S. representative Leslie L. Byrne (D), whom Davis defeated in 1994.

"Clearly he has become much more of a household name around the state," Woods said. "I'm not sure if there's a certain goal in mind, but he's well positioned to be a force within the party if and when he so chooses."

Besides Woods and other Northern Virginia moderates, Davis also has given lesser amounts to several socially conservative candidates, in one case backing an antiabortion activist whose opponent he supported in a primary earlier this year.

That approach could help ease Davis's relationship with that wing of the party. "It's not like he's singling somebody out philosophically" for donations, said Anne B. Kincaid, political consultant to Earley and former antiabortion lobbyist with the Family Foundation. "He's out there helping all Republicans. That's a good thing."

The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar