George B. Fitch felt moved to run for the Republican nomination for governor while he was stuck in traffic on Route 29.
True, the small-town mayor thought his party was straying from its core principles of providing more services with less government, but mostly he was tired of the gridlock. And he was ready to do something about it.
It was the summer of 2004 -- late in the game for a statewide campaign. He knew that. The party leaders' candidate, Jerry W. Kilgore, had begun campaigning for the governorship after he was elected attorney general in 2001. But the businessman who brought Jamaica to the Winter Olympics and won the mayor's post in the Warrenton with no political experience had the confidence that comes from going against the odds and prevailing.
He did not realize the magnitude of the task.
In its desire to win back the governor's seat from the Democrats, the Virginia Republican Party decided on Kilgore as its chosen candidate and put all its resources behind making him the man to beat Democrat Timothy M. Kaine on Nov. 8. The party helped Kilgore amass $8.6 million and kept Fitch as far in the shadow as possible, afraid he would draw support from Kilgore and jeopardize his chances in the fall.
"People think it's an open competitive system," Fitch said of the primary process.
Two days after Tuesday's overwhelming loss to Kilgore, he started packing up the Warrenton office of what he called "one of the tiniest campaigns in the history of a statewide race." Surrounded by boxes of unused Fitch bumper stickers, he reflected on how this election was for him a crash course in party politics.
The first hint of trouble came when he approached party members with the idea of running. Every one he talked to tried to dissuade him.
"Most of the time, it was polite," he said. "Please reconsider," they would say. Or they would offer him incentives -- a high position in the Kilgore administration, perhaps. Then he started getting anonymous phone calls: "If you run this campaign, your career in Republican politics will be over."
He decided to go ahead anyway, without the party's blessing, and ultimately, without its acknowledgment. Fitch said he had to call and remind the Republican Party of Virginia to list his name and contact information on its Web site as a candidate.
The only thing worse than being smeared in a campaign is being ignored. Kilgore refused Fitch's offers to debate and focused instead on campaigning against Kaine.
With GOP activists acting as if Fitch were invisible, it was pretty hard for him to recruit volunteers. One of the practical advantages of working within the party system, Fitch learned, is having access to a mobilized network of helping hands. Without them, the countless tasks of running a campaign, the signature gathering and envelope stuffing, fell to Fitch, his wife, two or three paid staff members and a fluctuating number of volunteers drawn in by his Web site.
But where Fitch really felt the pinch of the party's influence was in fundraising. Corporate political action committees, the main source of campaign contributions, would not give to someone the party would not endorse. He said that individuals he approached for donations told him, "Well, you're not really viable."
Fitch was surprised. As someone who speaks of increasing funding to protect natural resources and making developers pay their share of infrastructure costs, he said, "I thought the conservationists would support me."
They didn't, he said.
Because his campaign could not afford advertising -- a single direct mailing would cost $400,000, more than twice his campaign budget -- Fitch relied on free media. He said the mainstream press was mostly interested in how much money he raised and who endorsed him.
What he wanted people to focus on, he said, was his proposal to cut $1.3 billion from the state budget, or his plans for economic development in the southwestern part of the state. "We've gotten away from talking about issues," he said. Nowadays, rather than hearing real plans from politicians, he said, voters are spoon-fed "glittering generalities."
"The party seems to manipulate the electorate," he said, by "packaging a candidate," surrounding him with political consultants, and relying on mailers and TV ads, rather than debates and dialogues, to communicate with voters. He thinks that's why voters are cynical and turnout is low.
So, now that he understands how statewide elections work, would he consider running again? The tired candidate said all he knows for sure is that he's ready for a vacation.