Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III announced his resignation yesterday as Republican National Committee chairman after a year of uneasy relations with the White House as well as GOP losses in both governor's races Nov. 6, including the one in his state.
Gilmore, 52, cited his desire to spend more time with his wife and two sons as the primary reason for quitting the national party post, but close advisers said it would also free him to begin planning a possible comeback as the Old Dominion's governor four years from now. By law, Virginia governors cannot succeed themselves.
"Neither I nor my family can see any light at the end of this tunnel," Gilmore said in a statement about his RNC duties.
Former Montana governor Marc Racicot quickly emerged as the leading candidate to replace Gilmore in the RNC post. Racicot, a close friend of President Bush and a top adviser to Bush during last year's presidential campaign, is now in the Washington office of the Houston-based law firm of Bracewell & Paterson, where he has lobbied for energy companies and others.
"There's no question in my mind he's the president's first choice," one Bush adviser said. "The only question is, can he do it?"
Publicly, Gilmore and the White House said they were generally happy with his tenure as RNC chairman, which was a political reward for helping candidate Bush triumph in what had become a must-win presidential primary in Virginia in February 2000.
However, relations between the often autocratic Virginian and Bush's political team were always tense, prompting speculation in Washington and Richmond that he was about to be fired or was on the verge of quitting. The speculation intensified after the Nov. 6 elections, when Democrat Mark R. Warner carried Virginia and James E. McGreevey, another Democrat, won the governorship in New Jersey.
Republican sources in the U.S. and Virginia capitals said yesterday that although there was an agreement after the elections that Gilmore would continue as chairman, it would have probably meant a substantially reduced role. A senior Gilmore aide said a final straw for the governor was one recent grueling day when he had 22 appointments, including a late-night appearance in West Virginia that prevented him from getting home until the wee hours.
"He had been looking physically exhausted; now he looks relieved," the Gilmore staffer said.
Gilmore, who has roots in working-class Richmond, viewed the RNC post as a high point in a political career that had taken him in a relatively short time from county prosecutor to state attorney general and on to the governorship, which he won in 1997 largely on a promise to repeal Virginia's tax on cars and trucks.
Late last year, when Gilmore won the RNC job, he was riding high atop remarkable job-approval ratings and a resurgent Virginia GOP that had just unseated U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb to claim every statewide office. Gilmore had helped engineer the GOP's takeover of the General Assembly a year earlier.
However, Gilmore's appointment to the two-year term was one of only a handful of bright spots in what turned out to be a dispiriting political year for him and the state party. The RNC post pays about $150,000 annually; Gilmore accepted no salary.
Within weeks of his appointment, the governor was mired in an unprecedented budget impasse with fellow Republicans in the state legislature over the pace of car-tax relief. That deadlock persisted into the spring, hurting the campaign of Gilmore's would-be successor, Mark L. Earley.
Gilmore steered about $5 million in national Republican money to the Virginia race and a similar sum to New Jersey's, a drain on party resources that exacerbated concerns about his stewardship.
Now, with his RNC duties behind him, Gilmore is looking for employment in a Richmond or D.C. area law firm specializing in high-technology issues and is considering running for governor again in 2005, according to Virginia GOP sources.
Some of Gilmore's senior strategists have said in recent days that they would be willing to regroup in four years for a campaign.
Gilmore met with White House senior adviser Karl Rove on Tuesday night before a strategy dinner, but his RNC job was not discussed there. Gilmore spoke with the president and with Rove later in the week to tell them of his decision.
The governor said he talked with Bush "understanding very clearly what my priorities are for my family -- and what additional sacrifices would be required by my wife and my sons by the additional time and travel of serving another year as RNC chairman."
Bush said in a statement: "Jim Gilmore is a close friend and valuable ally. He answered my call to lead the Republican Party through a challenging and dynamic election. He has done so with fervor and conviction."
Gilmore said he was "deeply grateful" to Bush for his "strong support" but noted that since assuming the RNC chairmanship in January, he had spent 107 nights "on the road," away from his wife, Roxane, and their two sons, one of whom is now in college.
Rove praised Gilmore's service nationally and also credited him with building a strong Republican base in Virginia.
Gilmore got off to a rocky start as chairman, caught between his responsibilities in Richmond and the requirements of a job that calls for extensive travel and fundraising. He clashed repeatedly with the White House and with Deputy Chairman Jack Oliver over control of the committee's daily operations.
At one point, Gilmore ordered Oliver not to conduct senior staff meetings in his absence, an edict overruled by the president and Rove. One Republican strategist said that after the November elections, Gilmore again asked for power over committee staffing and operations and was rebuffed. A Bush adviser denied that account.
Gilmore leaves the party in strong shape financially, having raised about $73 million this year, a record. In its last report, the committee said it had $26 million in cash on hand, compared with $2 million for the Democratic National Committee.
If Racicot is not selected, Republicans said, Bush would have a potentially long list of possible new chairmen.
Speculation yesterday focused on such candidates as Reps. Henry Bonilla (Tex.), J.C. Watts (Okla.) or Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) as well as former House member Bill Paxon (N.Y.), who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee when the party captured the House in 1994.
Oliver, who has close ties to the White House, is another possible candidate. Mary Matalin, counselor to Vice President Cheney and a former RNC official, has told others she is not interested in the job.