Davis in Line for GOP Leadership Post
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 12, 1998; Page D1
Allies of Northern Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III said yesterday he had enough votes to become chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, securing the sensitive political post amid a House GOP leadership shake-up.
Majority Whip Tom Delay (Tex.) aligned his organization behind Davis, a moderate third-term congressman from Vienna. Backers said yesterday that more than 120 GOP members had committed to Davis over Rep. John Linder (Ga.), the NRCC chairman.
NRCC spokeswoman Mary Crawford questioned the Davis vote count. "That would not be consistent with Mr. Linder's conversations with members," Crawford said.
Davis's swift rise into contention for the leadership of the House Republicans' campaign arm follows the ascent of his patron, Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), to speaker-in-waiting.
But Davis, a U.S. Capitol Page School graduate, is a popular figure in the House in his own right, a moderate whose uncanny political memory, fund-raising prowess and affable demeanor have won friends across the GOP ideological divide and across party lines since he was elected to the House in 1994.
"Tom is a moderate, but someone conservatives like and can work very well with," said Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), a leader of House conservatives and also a member of the revolutionary class of 1994 -- a group that Davis sometimes joked he was a stranger to. "Tom knows you've got to run in some districts as a strong conservative on social issues, even if he is a moderate."
Supporters said Davis's success in securing a volatile Washington swing district equips him to present a fresh, suburban face to the country as House Republicans struggle to rebound from the loss of five seats in congressional elections last week.
Davis, 49, came to Congress after serving as chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County, the most populous jurisdiction in the Washington area. He based his current campaign on a pragmatic approach he compared to that of a former NRCC chairman, retiring Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.)
Paxon praised Davis for transforming what was a shaky seat for the GOP into "an invincible one," which he won with 83 percent of the vote Nov. 3 without drawing a Democratic challenger.
Trey Hardin, Davis's spokesman, said that Davis "does not want to fight this campaign out through the press" and that he was working the phones "to shore up votes."
But DeLay's office was more effusive and predicted victory.
"Tom Davis is going to be an excellent NRCC chair because he has the tactical, political and fund-raising experience to get the job done," said DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon. "He is far and away one of the best political minds on Capitol Hill."
Davis has considered the NRCC post a dream job, friends said, but decided to run only after GOP losses last week led Speaker Newt Gingrich to step down. Gingrich had handpicked Linder, a fellow Georgian. Davis has also pledged to wipe out the committee's $4 million debt.
In an appearance Tuesday on C-SPAN, Linder defended his tenure, arguing that he had "put more money into campaigns than ever in history. We lost because we lacked a message, and that wasn't my responsibility."
Critics would like to restore independence to the fund-raising position by returning it to an elected office when they choose party leaders next Wednesday.
By taking the helm of the NRCC, which is charged with recruiting and bankrolling candidates, Davis would catapult himself into an inner circle of only eight elected leadership officials who oversee the House's day-to-day operations, plot strategy in weekly Tuesday sessions and set the congressional agenda.
Davis, in fact, is well known on the Hill for his mastery of electoral history and campaign minutiae. He is the kind of baseball fan who keeps box scores, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a friend.
"The guy's a damn encyclopedia, a political encyclopedia," said Charles Cook, who edits the Cook Political Report. "I know a bit, but I don't know as much as that guy does."
Lobbyist Bill Jarrell recalled a 1991 Election Day he spent with Davis in which the Virginian quizzed him on the breakdowns of GOP campaigns he helped steer in Missouri and Idaho. "He just went down county-by-county every campaign I had been in," Jarrell said. "At that point, I knew he was destined to be NRCC chairman."
Davis would become the first representative from the D.C. suburbs to join the House GOP leadership in at least a generation -- and the first from Virginia in either party's leadership in decades. In a recent interview, he spoke of his ambition to elevate the region's profile and the Republican Party's reach.
"You need to have people in the party leadership who are from swing districts, who wind up talking to different constituencies instead of just one," Davis said after last week's election.
A grandson of a Nebraska attorney general, Davis is a product and student of Congress. After graduating from page school, during which he helped support his family on a $5,000 salary, Davis wrote a 1971 Amherst College honors thesis titled, "The Political Realignment of the Outer South." He showcases a 200-year volume of district returns, "The Historical Atlas of Politics in the U.S. Congress," in his office.
First elected to the Fairfax County board in 1979 when he was 30, Davis has wired GOP politics in one of the nation's richest, largest suburbs through his office.
While his moderate brand of politics is left of the House GOP mainstream, Davis raised an average of $1.5 million over the last three campaigns and gave $160,000 to the NRCC this year, winning "relevance" he might otherwise be denied among House chieftains.
He put his organization to work for Sen. John W. Warner's reelection in 1996, raised $150,000 for state legislative candidates in 1997 and set a goal to give $250,000 in 1999.
"I would much rather work that way than to always follow the party line," Davis said, "which is something we are not going to do."
Virginia Republicans said Davis's potential promotion could ease a logjam of potential Senate candidates. Former governor George Allen has signaled interest in challenging Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) in 2000. Meanwhile, Warner's aides say the Republican senator is "revitalized and reenergized" at the prospect of becoming Armed Services Committee chairman in January and may run again in 2002.
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