Virginia Republicans capped their decade-old drive to capture Richmond yesterday not with the hard-edged conservatism of the past but with a softer pitch to the moderate suburbs.
Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III and other party leaders resisted the urge to push bold new initiatives, freeing candidates running in 140 separate districts to tailor their campaigns to local tastes.
Republicans had their most important victories in the suburban areas. In Northern Virginia, Republicans fought off aggressive Democratic challenges and beat veteran Del. Gladys B. Keating in southern Fairfax County. In suburban Hampton Roads, Republicans picked up two seats in the House and fought off several tough challenges of incumbents.
The recipes in these races were similar. Republicans largely avoided divisive talk on abortion, gun rights and school vouchers. They focused instead on transportation, gun control and hiring teachers. Republicans vowed to cut taxes, build schools and manage growth.
In doing so, the GOP continued its success with the suburbanites who are Virginia's most potent voting bloc. They also took advantage of their first-ever edge in campaign finance to overwhelm some Democrats. Heading into the final weeks, Republicans were on track to spend $17.7 million on legislative races, compared with $13.5 million for the Democrats, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance reports.
"The Republicans won really by doing well in the suburban areas and by running technically proficient campaigns," said political science professor Robert D. Holsworth, of Virginia Commonwealth University. "The ideology in the campaign was quite muted."
The parties at times sounded so similar that voters could be forgiven if they had trouble telling Republicans and Democrats apart, particularly since few candidates listed their affiliations in campaign literature.
Gilmore led the way in this election without letting himself become the main issue in any campaign. He raised $3.4 million for his party. And every time Democrats seized on an issue to distinguish themselves from the Republicans, Gilmore neutralized it.
Democrats favored cutting the sales tax on food. So did Gilmore. They proposed cutting tuition at public colleges. So did Gilmore. They pushed for greater transportation spending. So did Gilmore, except he offered a bigger package--and he named the projects it would help build.
But the partisan stakes yesterday couldn't have been higher. The Republicans now have absolute authority over redrawing state legislative and congressional districts, meaning Democratic incumbents could be drawn out of office. It also means House committees will tip to Republican control, in many cases with Northern Virginia Republicans in key co-chairmanships.
The Republicans may have benefited as much by what they didn't say as by what they did. The Christian right managed to stay below the radar of most suburban voters, leaving the Republicans to portray themselves as the principal advocates for public education and largely free of baggage on social issues that can alienate moderate suburban voters.
Republicans also seem to have survived an intense push by Democrats on gun control--mainly by portraying themselves as for that, too.
"The Republicans are talking about what the suburbs care about," said GOP strategist Dick Leggitt, a Gilmore adviser.
It was not always that way. In the 30 years since moderate Linwood Holton became the first Republican governor of the 20th century, his party has occasionally been captive to sharply ideological conservatives and paid the price in lost support in the suburbs.
In 1985, Republican candidate for governor Wyatt B. Durrette proposed teaching creationism in Virginia's schools; the Democrats swept every statewide office. In 1994, Republican Oliver L. North offered a potent brand of cultural conservatism in his run for U.S. Senate; he lost. In 1995, then-Gov. George Allen (R) stumped the state, attempting to make the legislative elections a referendum on the conservative record of his administration; voters rebuffed him.
But earlier Republican setbacks now look like mere stumbles in a three-decade-long rise for the Republicans. They won all three statewide offices and the state Senate in 1997. And with yesterday's results, they completed what many call a fundamental realignment in the state.
The GOP majority in the House now could vault several Northern Virginia Republicans to more power in Richmond, at the expense of a generation of powerful Democrats from elsewhere in the state.
In the new Republican-controlled General Assembly, Northern Virginia lawmakers have key leadership positions. All three money committees in the General Assembly have GOP chairmen or co-chairmen from the region who stand to gain more power. Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (Fairfax) is a contender for the House speakership or some other leadership post.
That new power highlights a danger for the Republicans: that with their victory, their historic fractures will reemerge. Lawmakers from other parts of the state are already wary of Northern Virginia's power. And the demands made by Northern Virginia Republicans for investments in schools and transportation could put them at odds with the tax-cut, small-government philosophy of other GOP leaders, including Gilmore.
Social conservatives, who have made hardly a peep during this election, also are likely to demand progress on key issues, including further restrictions on abortion, public assistance for parents sending their children to private schools and the creation of a new type of marriage that's harder to legally dissolve.
"I could foresee all sorts of rifts opening up in the party," said political science professor Mark J. Rozell, of Catholic University. "Jim Gilmore could become the victim of his own success."