He's the self-described "happy warrior" of Prince William County. Armed with more confidence than experience, county board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) has, over the past four years, bested his political opponents, become the dominant politician in the county and cruised to a 70 percent reelection victory last November.
But he's no favorite son to many top Republicans in his home county, who consider Connaughton -- an antiabortion rights, pro-gun, pro-business Navy veteran -- nothing less than a squishy moderate. Now, as Connaughton, 43, travels the state campaigning for lieutenant governor, some prominent Prince William Republicans are actively backing his opponent, whom they consider the real conservative in the race.
"Not having a majority of support in his home area is a liability," said Rick Hendrix, a Prince William representative to the GOP state central committee who is supporting a Connaughton rival. "People will wonder about that."
Connaughton's conundrum is the latest example of the ideological split in the Virginia GOP. The recent budget battle in Richmond wound up splitting the GOP majorities in both houses and handing a victory to the state's Democratic governor. Victors said the budget debate showed the limit of the anti-tax movement in Virginia and proved voters also are interested in quality services.
Connaughton, a lawyer, will set out to test that theory. His campaign is highlighting Prince Williams's progress in building schools, roads and fire stations and providing plenty of money to improve county schools. His chief opponent in the lieutenant governor's race happens to be one of the state's strongest anti-tax activists, Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover). The race will be a clean matchup of messages: "good government" versus "anti-tax."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a Connaughton supporter and adviser, said the hometown sniping comes from ideologues who have more passion than strength in numbers.
"Sean is the favorite son. I think Sean will win. He's a better candidate, represents a bigger area and represents the new Virginia. He is more in touch with the changing Republican electorate,'' Davis said.
On a recent evening, Connaughton was four hours away from home, sitting at a chain steakhouse near a mall in Chesapeake, waiting to give his pitch to the local Republican committee. The restaurant sat across from another newish strip mall, home to a pawnshop, a Coast Guard recruiting station and a beauty parlor called "Hair Jordan."
The neighborhood, a melange of left-turn lanes, drive-through fast food joints, put-'em-up-quick townhouses and drainage ponds masquerading as lush lakes, could well be in Prince William, one of the fastest-growing places in the country. Prince William, the second most populous county in the state next to Fairfax, has been struggling to keep up with its burgeoning population.
Connaughton's campaign brochure, under the heading of "Proven Leader,'' says Connaughton "doubled the number of schools built, dramatically increased the number of police and fire personnel and fixed local roads without raising taxes."
The last part, "without raising taxes," is highlighted in bold letters.
He hands out a stack of brochures to the party activists in Chesapeake. "I want to bring the success of Prince William to the state," Connaughton tells them. Above him, on the wall, is a framed sign that reads: "If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes."
It is the "Prince William Miracle" at which his local opponents are taking aim. They say that instead of a miracle worker, Connaughton is a champion of big government who has presided over an era of skyrocketing taxes and government spending. And they are prepared to tell the rest of the state about it.
Far from cutting taxes or not raising taxes, Connaughton acknowledged that the average tax bill has gone up by a third during his watch. But he said some of that has to do with the increasing size and value of new homes in the county in recent years.
Connaughton's brochure claim is hung on the fact that the county's tax rate has been going down. But it has not gone down as fast as property values are going up, meaning that each penny of the tax rate is raising more revenue, providing the windfall to county government that has paid for all the new schools and firetrucks.
"There is no Prince William miracle," said Supervisor Corey A. Stewart (Occoquan), a fellow Republican supervisor who accepted Connaughton campaign funds last year but has since broken with him over the issue of taxes. "You can pay for anything if you raise taxes high enough."
Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles), who is Connaughton's closest political ally on the board, said the tax increases are paying for the services that the county's increasingly affluent population demands. Whatever you want to call it, he said, it is smart politics in a changing Prince William. "Saying Sean is a squishy moderate doesn't make him a squishy moderate,'' Nohe said.
For his part, Connaughton said the fight is more about labels than government or even ideology. "My record is more conservative than anyone else in the race,'' he said. "I am rooted in doing what is needed to ensure that my community is a safe one, with good schools, adequate roads and a good place to raise a family.
"What makes them the maddest about me is that I've been effective,'' he said.
Connaughton's campaign has tried to minimize the criticism from party activists as squeals from a loud but tiny bunch of anti-tax ideologues who have taken over the county GOP apparatus.
They responded by organizing a group of about 200 registered Republicans -- many wearing Connaughton campaign stickers -- to pack a meeting of the Republican committee last month and vote out the current anti-tax leadership. The effort failed, but the bad blood remains.
"The ones trying to shove things down our throats are the anti-taxers and the ones who I consider far right,'' said Ella Shannon, a longtime GOP activist from Woodbridge who helped organize the challenge group. "They will do anything, just about, to get their way. As far as I am concerned, they have no respect for anyone else's opinion.''
Connaughton is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who served in the Navy Reserve. He has a graduate degree from Georgetown University and a law degree from George Mason University. He works for a law firm in the District, commuting from his house in Triangle, where he lives with his wife, Teresa, and their two children.
He got his start in politics the hard way, by challenging a popular incumbent. In 1999, he ran against Kathleen K. Seefeldt, a 23-year Democratic veteran, for the job of chairman, the only at-large seat on the eight-member Board of County Supervisors.
In November, besides easily defeating his Democratic foe, he helped defeat his political archenemy, Sheriff E. Lee Stoffregen III, a Democrat, as well as several fellow Republican supervisors who gave him political headaches during his first four years.
The statewide race leading to elections in 2005 will test his energy, his ample supply of confidence and his fundraising abilities. Republican strategists say that Connaughton probably will have a big lead over his rivals in fundraising but note that Bolling has the statewide contacts and has been campaigning hard for well over a year.
Besides Bolling, the field for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor will include Del. Joe T. May (Loudoun) and perhaps others.
The next year will be a series of long drives and speeches to strangers in steakhouses with vinyl tablecloths.
That's fine with Connaughton. "At the end of the day, I am nothing but persistent," he said. "I don't give up, and I don't shrink from a fight.''