RICHMOND — Just two years ago, nearly every top-ranking Republican in Virginia called for the removal of Jeff Frederick as chairman of the state party after accusations of incompetence and mismanagement.
Now, many of those elected officials, including Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, see Frederick’s candidacy for the state Senate as an integral part of the Republican strategy to gain control of the chamber in November.
Republicans are contributing to his campaign, headlining events for him and offering advice in a tough race against Democratic Sen. Linda T. “Toddy” Puller (Fairfax) in Northern Virginia.
Frederick, 36, was ousted as state party chairman in 2009 after a brief tenure and did not run for a fourth term in the House of Delegates, where he prided himself on being an outspoken conservative.
But, he said, he decided to run this year — after the district was redrawn favorably for him during redistricting — to try to shake up the Senate, where many Republican proposals have died at the hands of the Democratic majority.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” Frederick said. “We have to do things differently.”
Puller declined to criticize Frederick and instead stressed her willingness to work with both Democrats and Republicans — something she called the “Virginia difference.”
“I’ve been there, and I’ve been able to get things done,” said Puller, 66, a reliable Democratic vote who was elected to the Senate in 1999 after eight years in the House.
Republicans are aggressively fighting to take control of the Senate, where Democrats hold a 22 to 18 majority. If the GOP picks up just two seats, the party would seize control, because Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) presides over the chamber; that would allow Republicans to control committee assignments and debate.
Democrats are on the defensive in many parts of the state, including vote-rich Northern Virginia, but they continue to think that Frederick is too conservative to topple a well-liked Democrat in a Democratic-leaning district.
Frederick, who as a legislator was outspoken on conservative issues, once took to the Assembly floor to say that Darwin’s theory of evolution “was used by atheists to explain away the belief in God.” He also once jokingly compared then-Sen. Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden, saying that “both have friends who bombed the Pentagon” — a reference to Obama’s association with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers.
But Frederick, following in the footsteps of McDonnell and other recently successful Republicans in Virginia, is playing down his focus on ideology. He talks about reducing the size of government, keeping taxes low and easing congestion.
“Being chairman of the Republican Party is different than being a member of the Virginia Senate,” McDonnell said in an interview. “I think he has the right ideas on jobs, businesses, taxes and spending.”
In 2009, Frederick had support from local activists as he fought to remain chairman, but party leaders — including McDonnell, the state’s five GOP congressmen and House Speaker William J. Howell of Stafford — called for his resignation. The allegations against Frederick included that he directed business to his own company, spent party money for unbudgeted purposes without approval and refused to coordinate with the campaign of the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). He has denied the allegations.
This year, McDonnell’s political action committee donated $10,000 to Frederick’s campaign. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has offered to headline an event for him. The Republican Party of Virginia sent out a campaign mailer on his behalf last week.
“Two years after McDonnell rightly decided that Frederick was either too tea party or too incompetent to head the Republican Party of Virginia, it is ironic to see him grit his teeth and endorse a man he once condemned for comparing Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden,” said Brian Coy, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. “It raises the question of how McDonnell has changed over that time, because Frederick sure hasn’t.”
Frederick declined to talk about his turnaround with party leaders. But sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could talk freely say he sat down with many of them before the campaign. “It is what it is,” he said.
Frederick said his top accomplishments in the legislature include bills that expanded the number of tests administered to newborns, created a back-to-school tax holiday and delayed tasks, such as renewing a driver’s license, for those deployed.
He called Puller “a nice lady” but said her campaign mailers are deceptive because they make her appear to be a “conservative, fiscal Republican.” He has blasted her for supporting higher taxes, including for gas and hotels, and for creating new taxes, including one for the use of travel Web sites.
“I think Toddy is as left wing as they come,” he said. “She is way out of the mainstream.”
Puller said her top accomplishments include legislation that helped veterans receive mental health treatment, required emergency vehicles to use lights and sirens when entering an intersection against a red light, and secured a transit study for Route 1.
Much of her work has focused on veterans issues. Puller’s late husband — a decorated Marine veteran who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about recovering from severe wounds he received in Vietnam — committed suicide in 1994. The Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Dale City is named for her late father-in-law, Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in history.
The General Assembly redrew the 36th District to include less of Fairfax County, more of Prince William County and a couple of precincts in nearby Stafford County.
The district was carried by Sen. James Webb (D) in 2006, Obama in 2008 and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who lost to McDonnell in the 2009 governor’s race.
But Republicans note that the district includes nearly all of Frederick’s former House district and many areas in Prince William and Stafford counties, where people are not as familiar with Puller.
Frederick easily defeated Tito Munoz — a small-business owner dubbed “Tito the Builder” by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential race — in the August primary.
Frederick is known for his energetic campaign style, knocking on more doors in the district than most other Republican candidates in the state do. He said his campaign visits about 2,400 homes a week.
Anthony Bedell, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said volunteers are working to reduce the margins that Puller is expected to get in Fairfax. They have made 65,000 calls since the start of August, rivaling their successful get-out-the-vote efforts in 2009, when Republicans won all three statewide seats — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — and picked up six seats in the House.
“She’s from Fairfax and is known there,” Bedell said. “She’s a tough campaigner, and nobody takes that lightly.”
Puller, who lost some movement after a stroke in 1997, said she spends hours a day calling voters in Prince William, where she is less known. Her campaign said she and her team can reach 6,500 potential voters in a week through calls and visits.
Bruce Roemmelt, chairman of the Prince William County Democratic Committee, said more than 200 volunteers and 11 interns are calling thousands of potential voters a week for Puller and other candidates.
Democratic leaders — including U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Webb and former governor Timothy M. Kaine, now a candidate for U.S. Senate — have headlined events for Puller.
Puller has raised more money than Frederick. She has collected $200,150 since the start of the year, when she had $77,549 in the bank, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics. Frederick has raised $179,328.