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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   Va.'s Davis Will Lead Key GOP Committee

    By Spencer S. Hsu
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, November 19, 1998; Page A31

    Rep. Thomas M. Davis III prevailed yesterday in his bid to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee after GOP House members ignored last-minute attacks by religious conservatives and elevated the moderate Northern Virginian to a leadership post.

    Davis ousted the current chairman, Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), 130 to 77 in the wake of GOP losses in the Nov. 3 congressional elections. But Davis's promotion triggered renewed strife among Virginia Republicans, with conservative groups blasting his mixed record on abortion and objecting to his role in divisive GOP nomination battles.

    In the end, Davis's popularity among colleagues and his bear-trap memory for political statistics carried the day. In his new leadership position, he will direct GOP candidate recruitment and fund-raising for the 2000 election.

    Davis, a 49-year-old Vienna resident who represents Fairfax and Prince William counties, allied himself with new House Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and quickly established himself as a fresh, moderate alternative to Linder, a retired dentist who was saddled by his association with outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich. (R-Ga.)

    Davis opposes abortion, but conservatives complain he has not voted to curb funding for international aid groups that include it as a family planning option. He also failed to endorse the GOP's "Contract With America," in part because it threatened the pensions of area federal employees who are his constituents.

    "Tom Davis is a great strategist. He understands how to win elections and doesn't allow his own ideology to affect the way campaigns are run," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. He said the message to social conservatives is clear: House Republicans want to win.

    Davis underscored this point at a news conference with newly elected caucus leaders, Reps. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), declaring that the Republican Party has undergone a "face lift."

    "We're a broad-based party. We have a great message. We need to look at more messengers," Davis said, echoing GOP efforts to reach out to minorities, women and suburban voters.

    Davis's promotion came at a cost, however, revealing rifts in his Virginia Republican base. He was the only leadership candidate targeted by such groups as the Family Research Council, Eagle Forum and English First. The Chesapeake-based Christian Coalition activated its national network to fight him.

    Last week, the groups sent out voting charts contrasting Linder's "good" and Davis's "bad" votes on 14 "pro-life/pro-family issues," ranging from his perceived abortion aid to his opposition to a federal bill that would have blocked local ordinances permitting benefits for domestic partners.

    As congressional committee chairman, Davis will recruit "more big-government, socially moderate representatives," not principled conservatives, said Charles H. Cunningham, Christian Coalition national operations director.

    "Tom Davis plays with the Democratic Party," said Carolyn Malenick, a GOP consultant and former fund-raiser for Oliver L. North, whose 1994 Senate bid in Virginia was foiled in part by opposition from Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.). That battle and others pitted GOP moderates against conservatives in the state, and Davis contributed top staff members to defend Warner against a challenge from the right during his 1996 reelection campaign.

    "Without a doubt this is a continuation of the blood feud within the Republican Party in Virginia," said Mark J. Rozell, a political scientist from Alexandria. He called the attacks "a powerful harbinger" of how Davis might fare in a state GOP nomination fight.

    But House colleagues welcomed Davis into the GOP's inner circle. Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who wrote legislation last session to limit gay rights, dismissed questions about Davis's ideological purity.

    "I don't think it makes any difference," he said. "His job is to elect Republicans of all stripes."

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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