Can business hold a grudge?

The answer to that question may help determine whether a new brand of politics takes hold in Virginia during the coming year.

A coalition of business and academic leaders, moderate Republican lawmakers and interest groups is poised to challenge the GOP's right wing for political control of the commonwealth.

That coalition -- created and then nurtured by Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat -- is furious with the Republican Party leadership for opposing tax increases to finance schools, roads, colleges and health care. Many have publicly and privately vowed to hold the anti-tax lawmakers accountable for their "no" votes during the last General Assembly session.

"This is about the business community supporting those who support our interests," said Nancy Reed, director of the political action committee for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

But will they hold on to that anger over time? Really?

In the past, business executives and interest groups have threatened retribution after losing a political battle, only to play footsie with their former adversaries during the next election or General Assembly session. The failure of the 2002 transportation referendums in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads comes to mind.

Organizers of the new effort insist this time is different. And there is some evidence they may be right.

In the last several weeks, some of Virginia's richest business leaders have begun a bold effort to raise as much as $2 million to promote candidates who supported the tax package and help defeat those who didn't. It would be the largest such effort in state history.

The Senate's Republican leadership, which often gripes about the conservatives in their midst, is doing something about them. For the first time, the leaders have formed their own PAC, with the dual mission of supporting like-minded candidates and responding to political rhetoric from the right.

And some of the interest groups that fought and won the grass-roots battle with anti-tax lawmakers appear to be putting their money where their mouths were.

Katharine Webb, the top lobbyist for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, did something that took everyone's breath away in Richmond this summer: She said "no" to several requests for money by lawmakers -- a dramatic move, in itself -- and then she told them why.

"HOSPAC's financial support must be contingent on a recognition that it is reasonable for health care providers to be paid for the costs they incur to deliver services to Medicaid patients," the letter stated. "Your failure to vote for a budget that only provided a modest increase places us in the difficult position of denying your contribution request."

If the moderates stick to their guns, that could realign Virginia politics for decades, just when the state's conservative movement was poised to settle in for its own long stretch in power.

Or it might fizzle.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), the leader of the anti-tax lawmakers in the House, is quick to remind business leaders of the myriad issues that he and the members of his GOP caucus have helped with.

Businesses like tort reform; he pushed it. Big corporations hated a bill to close the "Delaware holding company" tax loophole; Republican House members helped water it down. The Senate unanimously passed a bill giving parents unpaid leave from work for school conferences; the GOP in the House stopped it cold.

Howell said the business leaders pushing moderate candidates are nothing more than "Richmond and Northern Virginia citizens who run around together. They don't represent the voice of business."

If Howell is right, business interests could choose to move on to other issues. After making a lot of noise, they could go back to their old ways: They donate to the GOP leadership because the GOP is in charge. They forgive and forget because they have other priorities. The money flows where it has always flowed.

Recent campaign finance reports suggest that may already be happening. Companies such as Dominion Resources Inc. have already begun hedging their bets, giving to both supporters and opponents of the tax increases. And few lobbyists have followed Webb's lead; some say privately that what she did was crazy.

If that thinking continues, the GOP's anti-tax wing could score huge victories in the next several elections, knocking off more moderate colleagues in primaries or taking their seats when they retire. Several of the most liberal Republicans in the House and Senate have been in the legislature for decades and are headed for the door.

In that scenario, both the House and the Senate become even more solidly anti-tax. And the moderates in the Republican Party fade away, becoming a footnote in early 21st-century political lore.

We will know more next summer, when politicians in Virginia face the voters for the first time since raising their taxes.