Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the Virginia Republican who led the House GOP campaign committee to historic election gains last week, is poised to enjoy the fruits of four years of raising funds for fellow Republicans and earning the trust of House leaders.
Davis's work two years ago helped ensure that President Bush took office with the House under his party's control, something that no Republican president had done since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.
Then, on Tuesday, House Republicans outgained Democrats under a GOP president at midterm for the first time since at least 1900 -- growing from 223 members to 228, with two races undecided.
For Davis, access to the White House, the thanks of a grateful Republican majority and a House committee chairmanship important to greater Washington seem potentially within grasp.
As the polls closed, Davis knew well the stakes: "I was too nervous to eat." He was dining with his party's congressional and campaign leaders at the White House with the president and first lady.
Only after returns had confirmed Republican success -- and Bush had slapped high-fives with his guests -- did Davis dip into his first dessert in a month, chocolate layer cake and coconut ice cream.
"You spend two years of your life toward one night, and kind of your reputation is at stake," said Davis, who spent the rest of the night in his office with aides, sleeping only an hour. "When you have a night like this, you don't want it to end."
For Davis, 53, life is sweet. Since joining Congress eight years ago after two terms as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the Falls Church area resident has straddled an ideological divide as a suburban moderate in a fiercely conservative GOP House. Left of the Republican mainstream on issues from abortion rights to gun control, Davis confronted the conventional wisdom that he was too moderate to advance in the chamber.
After the party's disastrous 1998 losses, GOP Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) decided to tap Davis's almanac-like grasp of county-level U.S. political dynamics and propelled him into the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Victories in 2000 and 2002 have sent his stock soaring. This election cycle, Davis oversaw the collection of a record-smashing $160 million for GOP candidates, and he personally sponsored legislation for major GOP contributors, such as tobacco giant Philip Morris Cos.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called Davis "critical" to the GOP success last week. His spokesman, John Feehey, elaborated: "This was a race run on local issues. It was his knowledge of local districts that helped us."
Republican aides say Davis proved his worth to GOP interest groups, lobbyists and lawmakers as a player on a conservative team, without being a conservative.
For Davis, the NRCC post has been consuming. He stumped in 27 states for 40 candidates, recruited a dozen winners and gave $700,000 to the cause from his own campaign fund.
From his dimly lighted hideaway in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol this autumn, Davis dealt in such arcana as how the French Canadian vote would tilt a Maine open seat, or how many television ads it would take to save a Pennsylvania incumbent. He urged the Bush administration to appoint Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio) to a U.N. post this year, knowing his district would fall into GOP hands.
His reach extended to races across the country. He and Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove helped broker a redistricting deal in 2001 between California congressional leaders that Republicans say set the stage for their success.
National Democrats hoped to gain as many as six seats in California through redistricting, but state Democrats were worried about protecting incumbents and cut a deal that ended up electing one more Republican and one more Democrat to Congress from the nation's biggest Democrat-controlled state.
"I won't say Tom Davis knew more about my community than I did, but I'll tell you he knew as much -- not bad for a guy who's 2,288 miles from my district," said state Senate Minority Leader James L. Brulte (R).
The deal prompted Davis to predict that Republicans would gain as many as eight seats this fall. They wound up with five, and counting.
Davis said Bush's popularity and support for House candidates was the biggest factor Tuesday. He added, "I'll quote the great one, Wayne Gretzky. 'Most people skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going to be.' In politics, you have to understand not where the voters are when a poll is taken, but where they are likely to end up on Election Day. . . . I think we did a better job."
Davis hopes Hastert, soon-to-be majority leader DeLay, incoming whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and the GOP caucus will reward him with the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Committee.
The leaders remain neutral, but lobbyist Daniel J. Mattoon, a Hastert friend and Davis's former deputy at NRCC, spoke in support. "Clearly [Hastert and DeLay] start at a little different point ideologically from Tom, but their respect for his political skills has increased dramatically over four years," Mattoon said.
Why does Davis want the committee? The panel oversees the District, the federal civil service, government contracting and the Postal Service -- all vital to Washington area residents and businesses. It also has exercised investigative oversight on White House handling of energy policy, health care reform and Whitewater.
Although Davis is focusing on winning that chairmanship, the result is not certain. He would have to leapfrog over more-senior Republicans. His two main rivals are Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Christopher Cox (Calif.). A GOP insider said Davis has earned a "real chance, but an outside chance" of moving up. Davis's ties to federal labor unions who represent workers in his district could be a strike against him.
Closer to home in Virginia, Davis's success and fundraising clout have won over many Republican doubters of his moderate stands, said state GOP Chairman Gary R. Thomson.
In the 1999 and 2001 elections, Davis plotted strategy for General Assembly candidates and sent more than $1 million to state and local candidates. Of Virginia's eight Republican members of the U.S. House, four were elected while Davis was NRCC chairman, and he wooed another, Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., into switching parties.
"In the last four years, Tom Davis has used his national leadership and translated it into effective Virginia leadership," said Thomson, who called Davis a "major contender" for statewide office.
Davis's national triumph came as a transportation tax he had backed crashed in a Northern Virginia vote. Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax business group, said Davis "critically, mortally wounded his chances" of winning in a Virginia GOP nominating convention, where anti-tax activists hold sway.
Other conservative figures disagreed. "He's a professional. He wants to win elections, and beyond that, he does win elections," said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. "He doesn't have his own agenda; he's trying to build a big, broad coalition."
For his part, Davis encouraged talk that he might seek statewide office, particularly if Sen. John W. Warner (R) retired.
"I'm determined to make sure we [Northern Virginians] are part of the equation in future [GOP] statewide tickets," Davis said. "I may not be able to meet some litmus test, but I'm closer to the center of gravity of the Republican Party statewide than anybody. Senator Warner and I are very much soul mates, and he's been our best candidate."