THE ANTI-TAX crowd has trained the full force of its wrath on Republican lawmakers in Virginia who defied their party leadership to back an increase in state taxes last year. Instantly branded as infidels, the Republican defectors have been treated to venomous denunciations and scarcely veiled threats that primary challengers would be found to unseat those who broke faith with the conservative orthodoxy. Anti-tax champion Grover Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform, has been circulating a poster headlined "Virginia's Least Wanted" that bears the names and photos of the GOP turncoats. And a conservative political action committee has raised tens of thousands of dollars to finance anti-tax candidates.
But with Virginia's primaries less than two weeks off -- they're set for June 14 -- the campaign of intimidation has largely evaporated. Of the 17 Republicans in the House of Delegates who supported Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's final tax package, just six are facing primary challenges, including three in Northern Virginia: Dels. Joe T. May (Loudoun), Harry J. Parrish (Manassas) and Gary A. Reese (Fairfax). Of the six, only one or two appear to be in any real danger of losing their seats, and they may be vulnerable for reasons largely unrelated to their votes to raise taxes. There is always the potential for electoral surprise, especially in low-turnout primaries in an election year. But barring a major upset, nearly all the Republican tax-backers appear to be headed for renomination and probably reelection too -- threats or no threats.
Of course, the power of incumbency plays a key role. Many of the Republican lawmakers who broke party ranks were senior enough and secure enough in their districts not to have to worry about primary challenges. Virginia's Republican leadership also decided that for the party to have any hope of recapturing the governorship, it had better do its best to patch up lingering hard feelings over taxes. Eager to avoid an intraparty brawl in an election year, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, endorsed all the party defectors and gave Mr. Norquist the cold shoulder; so did other key Republican officeholders.
More broadly, there is no sign that Mr. Warner's $1.4 billion tax increase triggered anything resembling a citizens' revolt in Virginia, despite lawmakers' anxieties at the time and the anti-tax crowd's huffing and puffing. The bulk of that money is going to improving the state's education system, which needs it. And while the state is enjoying a strong economy and a budget surplus, it faces soaring health care costs and staggering transportation needs that no one has figured out yet how to pay for. By turning their back on the anti-tax movement's cries for revenge, Virginians would be displaying sound judgment.