The politicians who must have been most pleased by the results of Virginia's primary election June 14 were not even on the ballot: the Republicans who lead the state Senate.
They call themselves the Gang of Five -- Sens. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) and William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol).
None of them will face voters this year; they and their 35 Senate colleagues will do so in 2007. Yet this month's primary sent a strong signal, from which they will no doubt take comfort, that voters are not angry about the 2004 tax increases.
It was, after all, these five who pushed for a two-year, $4 billion tax increase during the infamous 2004 tax session. Their plan, largely drafted by Chichester, would have raised more taxes -- and by a higher amount -- than Gov. Mark R. Warner ever proposed. It would have generated nearly $2 billion annually to pay for education, police, transportation and health care.
At the time, the five talked tough, as though they couldn't care less whether there would be repercussions at the ballot box. They talked about "doing the right thing" and of "recapitalizing" Virginia's budget for the long term.
The truth is that all politicians care about getting elected. At some point, it comes down to this: If they don't get reelected, none of the grand principles for which they stand will matter, because they won't be around to fight for them.
And so the Gang of Five was watching the primary carefully, as Republicans in the House of Delegates who voted for a more modest tax increase last year fought for their political lives.
Seventeen House Republicans voted to break the budget stalemate in 2004 by raising taxes, and they immediately became electoral targets. In the end, their critics found challengers for six in an early sign that the tidal wave of anger that some had predicted among voters was not surging.
Despite a concerted effort financed principally by some wealthy anti-tax donors, five of the six challenged Republican delegates beat back primary opponents and are heavily favored to win reelection in the fall against Democratic opposition.
One did lose -- Del. Gary A. Reese of Fairfax. But his loss had been telegraphed by both sides for weeks as it became clear that Reese had made few friends during his brief time in the legislature.
In fact, Reese had been on both sides of the tax issue, making enemies in both camps. He initially voted with the moderates to break the stalemate and approve a tax increase. When it came time for a final vote, Reese flipped, opposing the tax increase.
In the end, it appears, he made no one happy.
Reese aside, it was a good day for House Republicans and the Gang of Five. If voters were willing to forget increases to sales and tobacco taxes a year after they were imposed, think how little they will remember by 2007.
There is another way of looking at the June 14 primary, and it was offered clearly by the Wall Street Journal's editorial page two days later.
The Journal, which has followed Virginia's tax and spending debate for more than a year, starts with two assumptions: that it is virtually impossible to knock off incumbents, and that anti-tax activists had a feather in their cap before the primary even started.
The Journal counts the decision by Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax) to retire after more than 30 years as a victory.
"The most vocal of those pro-tax incumbents was so embattled that he withdrew from the race," the paper wrote. (Never mind that Dillard, who has been in the House since 1972, had talked openly about retiring long before the tax session started.)
The Journal noted that two "pro-tax incumbents" barely won, Reese was "trounced" and that two anti-tax candidates won statewide primaries for attorney general and lieutenant governor.
"Several other tax-raising Republicans beat back challenges more comfortably, but we suspect they also got the voter message," the Journal said.
As is usually the case with democracy, voters never send a perfectly clear message. But the record stands from the primary -- anti-tax: 1, pro-tax: 16.
That's a record that should give the Gang of Five plenty of reason to sleep peacefully until 2007.