Virginia's state politicians will face the voters Tuesday for the first time since the historic battle over taxes in 2004, competing in primary campaigns that are testing the depth of the public's anger over that fight and its willingness to accept higher taxes for more public services.
The political stakes are highest for the state's Republican Party, whose membership fractured during the extended legislative debate over Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's plan to increase taxes. But his party, too, is carefully navigating the issue of taxes and spending as its candidates seek advantage in the Nov. 8 general election.
Six GOP lawmakers who bucked party orthodoxy to support the tax increases are the targets of anti-tax challengers. The two Republicans seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor have clashed repeatedly over who is the bigger tax cutter. And one Democrat has derided as a "gimmick" the homeowner tax relief proposed by her party's candidate for governor.
"They are all talking about taxes as if it were the Holy Grail and there's nothing else that matters," said J. Scott Leake, executive director of a political committee formed by the state's top GOP senators.
Leake said such anti-tax crusaders as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform are "trying to ride the echo [of the 2004 battle] for all it's worth. We know their views are widespread. We'll just see how deep. How long do people really stay mad?"
Throughout the weekend, candidates made a final push toward Tuesday's primary. Former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor against Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch, spent yesterday afternoon at a Fairfax County festival.
Prince William County Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, who is running for the GOP nomination to be lieutenant governor, dropped by the Braemar Blasters swim meet yesterday morning and shook hands with parents while their children, clad in red and black Speedos, adjusted their bug-eyed goggles and dived into the pool to the sound of whistle blasts.
Todd Skiles, 34, a member of the Braemar homeowners association, said he's supporting Connaughton because of his record on transportation.
"If you're going to build houses, you have to bring us roads," Skiles said, adding he believes that people in Prince William don't mind being taxed more if they think they will get services. "It's not like these things are going to magically improve."
A few miles away, a group of 15 supporters of Connaughton's opponent, Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover), met in the parking lot of a Safeway and gathered pamphlets to distribute across the county.
"This is the most important race for conservatives this year," said Richard E. Hendrix, 47, chairman of the Prince William Taxpayers Alliance. "We just need to get principled conservatives in statewide office."
For Virginia voters, the outcomes of this year's races are anything but academic. Tuesday's primary is the beginning of a process that will end in early November with the chance for a wholesale replacement of the politicians who decide how many roads to build, how many police officers to hire and how much teachers will get paid.
The state's leaders -- governor, attorney general and lieutenant governor -- will all be new. And all 100 seats in the House of Delegates, where the fight over taxes climaxed last year, will be up for election. Only the 40 state senators, who serve four-year terms, are excused from facing voters until 2007.
But perhaps the biggest question of all to be addressed is the one that roiled the 2004 General Assembly: How high do taxes need to be to pay for it all?
"Taxes have been the big issue in Virginia since 1995," when then-Gov. George Allen launched an unsuccessful bid to cut taxes, said Frank Atkinson, Allen's policy director at the time. "It's been a pretty continual debate about the appropriate level of taxes and the relationship of that to spending."
That debate intensified last year, when Warner insisted that the state's finances demanded an overhaul to the tax system and a $1 billion tax increase for the following two years.
For six months, Warner pushed and prodded as the state's Republican Party convulsed. Centrist GOP senators pushed for a $4 billion tax increase. Conservative House members vowed to stop any increase. Finally, a group of 17 Republicans in the House of Delegates broke with their party and gave their blessing to a $1.5 billion tax increase.
At the time, conservative Republicans and anti-tax activists demanded the ouster of anyone who voted for the increase. James T. Parmelee, president of Republicans United for Tax Relief, vowed to unseat the offending lawmakers "step by step by step."
In the end, anti-tax groups mustered enough money and candidates for six challenges to maverick GOP delegates. One of them is Del. Gary A. Reese (R-Fairfax), who was out on the campaign trail in yesterday's heat.
"If the House of Delegates goes extremist, if the Senate goes extremist, no one is going to want to invest . . . invest in schools, invest in roads, invest in anything," he said. Reese is running against a local youth minister, Chris S. Craddock.
Money has poured into the six House races, although a centrist business group formed to defend the incumbents, Leadership for Virginia, raised more than the Virginia Conservative Action PAC, which supported the challengers.
The Republican Main Street Partnership, a national group that represents centrist GOP members of Congress and governors, also helped Reese and a handful of other Virginia incumbents. "What's at stake is another war between centrists and conservatives," said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, the group's executive director. "I don't mind a good fight, but these centrists are sitting incumbents and fellow Republicans."
Norquist is unapologetic about targeting Republicans. He said the primary is the continuation of a process of "thinning out the herd" by ridding the party of tax-raisers. He said the challenges prove that raising taxes "is something for which they are ashamed and which they hide."
Although sparked by the legislative tax fight, several of the six GOP delegate races have centered on local and social issues. Challengers to Robert D. "Bobby" Orrock Sr. (Spotsylvania) and Edward T. Scott (Madison) pointed to their stands on availability of contraceptives.
But the tax issue has been prominent even in some House races where there is no incumbent. In Fairfax City, former mayor John Mason has been hammered by opponent Jim L. Kaplan for supporting the effort to pass a transportation tax in 2002.
"The impact of the tax debate will be reflected in the results of the open seats," said Stephen A. Horton, a Richmond lobbyist and former deputy chief of staff for ex-governor James S. Gilmore III.
Horton also said he thinks that voters will choose strongly anti-tax candidates for statewide office, in the belief that tax increases were not necessary. Horton is backing Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach) against lawyer Stephen E. Baril to be the GOP nominee for attorney general.
"The nomination of conservative anti-tax Republicans statewide like Bolling and McDonnell -- who have campaigned on their records of opposing tax increases -- will be a strong barometer of voter opinion," Horton said.
In the 45th House District, where Democrat Marian Van Landingham is retiring, six Democrats have argued about who is liberal enough to represent Arlington and Alexandria.
The Democratic candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, and attorney general, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), will not appear on the ballot because they are unopposed. But Tuesday's primary offers a choice among four Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor.
State Del. Viola Baskerville (D-Richmond) made waves early in her campaign for the state's No. 2 office by criticizing Kaine's plan to allow a 20 percent "homestead exemption" on homeowner taxes.
Baskerville is running against Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax), former state senator Leslie L. Byrne and Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell).
Staff writers Michael A. Chandler and Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.