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GOP Sweeps Top Va. Offices

By Spencer S. Hsu and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 5, 1997; Page A01

Republican James S. Gilmore III, who cast his campaign as a crusade to eliminate the state's detested annual car tax, was elected Virginia governor yesterday, leading a historic GOP sweep of all three statewide offices and threatening Democrats' century-long grip on the Virginia Senate.

With nearly all of the ballots counted, Gilmore, a former state attorney general, had 56 percent of the vote to 43 percent for Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D), establishing back-to-back GOP administrations in Virginia for the first time in two decades.

In the race for lieutenant governor, Republican John H. Hager, a former tobacco executive, defeated L.F. Payne Jr., a former U.S. representative who was the top vote-getter among Democrats running statewide but who trailed Hager by 50 to 45 percent.

Republican state Sen. Mark L. Earley (Chesapeake) won the attorney general's race, with 58 percent of the vote, defeating Democrat William D. Dolan III of Arlington. Earley became the first candidate embraced by religious conservatives elected to statewide office in Virginia.

Democrat L.F. Payne Jr., with his wife Susan, concedes the Lt. Governor's race
Democrat L.F. Payne Jr., with his wife Susan, concedes the lieutenant governor's race. (AP)
In the House of Delegates, where all 100 seats were up for election, Republicans needed a net gain of only five seats to claim control of the chamber for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrats appeared likely to lose one or two seats but to hold on to their narrow majority.

A triumphant Gilmore claimed a populist mandate to deliver on his pledge to nearly eliminate the $1 billion-a-year tax on personal vehicles.

"We will, in this administration, immediately move to eliminate the personal property tax on cars and trucks," he roared to cheering Republicans at the Richmond Marriott hotel while flanked by his wife, Roxane, and his sons, Jay and Ashton. "The General Assembly of this state has a responsibility to eliminate this car tax and respond to the people of Virginia."

Gilmore also signaled that he would move to broaden the Republican Party's reach to include minorities and other groups as the GOP bids to solidify its status as Virginia's dominant party.

"We have had a past of setting one region against another, or for some political gain, setting one race against another, or one group of people against another," Gilmore said. "We will have none of that in the future."

Jubilant Republicans came ready to celebrate the historic night, propping a broom against the elevated podium, cheering when Hager broke out of a tight race, erupting when Earley was declared the winner, and breaking out cigars by 9 p.m. The GOP victories mean that for the first time since Reconstruction, no Democrat will hold any of the three statewide offices in Virginia's government.

"It's the most impressive showing by Republican candidates in modern times in Virginia," said Merle Black, political scientist at Emory University. "There's no other southern state where Republicans hold all statewide positions. . . . It's historic. It's a breakthrough."

Since the post Civil War-era, Republicans have never won the governor's office and all the other top elected offices in a state in the old Confederacy, although Virginia is unusual in having only three posts. For example, Republicans hold seven of eight statewide offices in South Carolina.


No southern state has elected both a Republican governor and GOP-led state legislature at the same time in this century. This year's Republican sweep in Virginia came 28 years after the election of the first GOP governor in Virginia in modern times.

"This is the culmination of a long struggle up a big mountain. We finally got to the top," Donald Huffman, who was chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia from 1983 to 1992, when Democrats swept three consecutive elections. "I always had hopes, but I never thought it would come to pass."

National Democratic leaders had hoped that Beyer, a 47-year-old Alexandria car dealer, would use his business background and moderate politics to help rebuild the party in the South. He stressed education throughout his campaign, and he had hoped to win his home turf of Northern Virginia by a large enough margin to offset more conservative areas downstate.

But Gilmore's attack on the car tax, which costs Virginia households hundreds of dollars a year, struck a nerve in Washington's suburbs, where jurisdictions have the state's highest personal property tax rates.

In the wake of yesterday's debacle, Beyer sounded defiant even as insiders cast blame and began agonized soul-searching over how the party lost its way while running on its traditional themes of education, the environment and social issues such as abortion.

"This election is over. But the fight for Virginia's future is just beginning," Beyer said in his concession speech at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, hugging his wife, Megan, and 17-year-old daughter, Stephanie.

Drawing cheers from an emotional crowd, he added: "Our victories are never final. Our defeats are never permanent. . . . And when the sun comes up tomorrow morning, as sure as I am of anything in my life, we will be back. We will be back. We will be back."

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the turnout was about 48 percent of registered voters, the lowest for a Virginia governor's race since 1965, or the post-civil rights era. Fewer Virginians voted than in 1993, although rolls have grown by 600,000, to 3.6 million, because of easier registration laws.

None of the Virginia Senate's 40 seats was up for election tonight, but the state Senate was affected by the results.

John H. Hager/TWP
John H. Hager reaches out to Katie McFarland as he campaigns in Fairfax. (Larry Morris/TWP)

Gilmore's coattails and his tax-cut platform pulled Hager to victory, and Hager now will break any tie votes in a chamber with 20 Democrats, 19 Republicans and a seat from a GOP-leaning district -- Earley's -- to be filled in a special election. A GOP victory in that special election would give the party effective control of the Senate for the first time in 114 years.

Analysts said the overall gains by Republicans, which followed several elections in which they have picked up legislative seats, reflected the party's focus on emphasizing pocketbook issues. Jim Nicholson, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, dropped in on Gilmore's victory party and said the governor-elect's tax-cut proposal would be reflected in campaigns by GOP candidates in next year's congressional races.

"It's profound," he said. "This will be a model for our elections in 1998. When you talk to people both in Virginia and America, they're tired of being overtaxed. This is what you get when you get them behind you."

State Del. J. Randy Forbes (Chesapeake), the state GOP chairman, said, "I think there is no question that the Republican Party captured the hearts and minds of the people of Virginia."

Meanwhile, religious conservatives pointed to the success of Earley -- the Senate's leading abortion opponent and once an attorney for former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed -- as a milestone for their movement.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson -- the Christian Coalition's founder, who gave $50,000 to Gilmore in each of his two statewide campaigns and who figured prominently in Beyer's attack ads -- cited exit polls showing social conservatives accounted for Gilmore's margin of victory. He said the results prove that "religious bigotry backfires."

"There's no doubt that Mark Earley has provided the playbook for religious conservative candidates nationwide," said Reed, founder of an Atlanta consulting firm that helps religious conservative candidates.

For Democrats, the setbacks were a bitter pill that led some party leaders to acknowledge that Republicans once again were a step ahead of them in setting a campaign's agenda.

The election left U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb as the only Virginia Democrat elected to office statewide. It also shut down the party's system of having candidates move up to the governor's office after serving as lieutenant governor or attorney general.

"The high command of the Democratic Party has created a party that doesn't debate the issues, that is devoid of intellectual content," said Paul Goldman, the Democratic Party chairman from 1990 to 1992 and the architect of L. Douglas Wilder's 1989 gubernatorial victory. "Something has to be done to remove their grip on power."

"Eight years, $15 million spent and not a single memorable idea," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "What this shows is there have been two statewide campaigns run in which not a single idea that Virginians could remember or cared about was the centerpiece of a Democratic campaign."

Others put the blame on Beyer. They said he failed to attack Gilmore's tax-cut plan soon enough and alienated some supporters by first talking of raising revenue to build roads and schools and then reversing himself and proposing a tax cut of his own when he realized the popularity of Gilmore's plan.

Mark Fetter, a Richmond publisher, was among rank-and-file activists who said Beyer was the problem. "He was on the defensive the whole campaign," said Fetter, adding that Beyer was caught off-guard by Gilmore's attack on the car tax and never recovered.

Gilmore, a reserved former prosecutor from suburban Richmond, had an edge in fund-raising spurred by $2.1 million in contributions from national GOP committees and was helped by a healthy state economy and the popularity of Republican Gov. George Allen, who was barred by law from seeking a second term.

For Republicans, Gilmore's victory capped their dominance of Virginia politics in the 1990s, reminiscent of Democrats' reign in the 1980s. An economic conservative who appealed to religious activists, Gilmore practiced Allen's brand of Sun Belt conservatism and united a party that had been split along ideological lines.

"George Allen has thrown the longest Hail Mary pass to Jim Gilmore in history!" said U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R).

Gilmore's efforts to push a tax cut through the legislature could be made easier with Hager's victory. Gilmore also will enjoy Earley's legal backing as attorney general, as well as getting political credit from the religious right for helping to elect a champion of Christian conservatives.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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