Gizzi on Politics: July 16-20

Whose In for Mississippi?

Jackson, Miss.– When I was in Mississippi last month, while much of the GOP leadership was committed to Arizona Sen. John McCain, it was clear that former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson will have some significant fund-raising firepower in the Magnolia State.
Thomas Colbert, president of the Commercial Bank in Jackson and a leading figure in community affairs, is expected to be named Mississippi finance chairman for the still-unofficial campaign of the onetime senator and TV actor. In addition, oilman Billy Mounger is soon expected to sign onto “Team Thompson.” At 80 and still going strong, Mounger is universally regarded as the top fund-raiser for the state Republican Party and was one of the top fund-raisers in the nation for Ronald Reagan’s presidential bids in 1976 and ’80.

One office-holder also likely to join Thompson’s campaign is Rep. Roger Wicker — he and the Tennessean are cousins.

For a long time, most of the Republican presidential camps had been willing to concede the state to McCain, who has ancestral roots in Mississippi through his father’s family and has been endorsed by Sen. Trent Lott and Rep. Chip Pickering — two of the premier Republicans in the state. But given the recent enthusiasm for Thompson nationwide and the anger among Republicans toward Lott for his support of the Bush Administration’s immigration reform bill, this state again shows how true was former Secretary of State James Baker’s warning that “overnight is an eternity in politics.”

Battle in the East

When Republican strategists discuss U.S. House seats they lost in ’06 but have a chance at recapturing in ’08, one that inevitably comes up is Connecticut’s 2nd District along the Nutmeg State’s Eastern border. After all, the 2nd was the site of the closest House race in the nation last November, when three-term moderate Republican Rep. Rob Simmons (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 53%) was unseated by Democrat Joe Courtney by a microscopic 83 votes. Courtney’s frenetic efforts to stay in Congress and raise money for what is sure to be a fiercely contested race next year were recently profiled in the Washington Post Magazine.

Simmons has passed on a rematch and accepted appointment from Republican Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell as the state’s small business advocate. But almost a year before the districtwide nominating convention, Republicans in the 2nd District have united behind attorney and former U.S. Navy submarine commander Sean Sullivan as their standard-bearer against Courtney.

Last week, Sullivan’s campaign had raised more than $30,000 of the $3 million the U.S. Naval Academy graduate told me he has budgeted to “finish the job” of retaking the 2nd.
“We lost the closest House race in the country last year because Republican towns just didn’t turn out,” Sullivan told me during a recent visit to my office. “They were mad at the administration and the Republican Congress over spending and Iraq.”

As to what a difference two years will make — especially in a presidential year in a state that has not backed a Republican for President since 1988 — Sullivan explained that contrasting his own conservative position on spending and taxes with those of Courtney (“He’ll vote any way [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D.-Calif.] tells him to”) will re-energize the Republican base in the very marginal 2nd.

In a district that includes the Electric Boat Co.’s home in Groton (“the submarine capital of the world”), issues of defense and intelligence are key. One interesting fact about the 2nd District is that its last two Republican House members, Bob Steele (1970-74) and Simmons (2000-06), were both alumni of the CIA.

Sullivan, a 26-year naval officer, is a proud veteran of the Gulf War, a mission that in his words “had a purpose in restoring a government [in Kuwait] and never tried to create a government [as in Iraq].” However, he quickly added, that “eight years of doing nothing about Iraq and Saddam led the cauldron of instability to boil away,” and he backs the recent U.S. action that took out Saddam. Although Courtney did vote for the war resolution in the House, Sullivan notes that “he was part of that group in Congress that tried to load it up with pork, and that’s what I’m opposed to.”

“Why Connecticut will support Democrats who spend so much of our tax dollars and require greater federal revenue is beyond me — and it’s got to stop!” declared self-styled “spending hawk” Sullivan. Noting that Democrats have veto-proof numbers in both houses of the Connecticut legislature, the GOP hopeful says, “The spending they do here is bleeding our state. We’re losing our tax base, losing our jobs and losing our youth. That should be a lesson to our members of Congress on what not to do.”

Sullivan strongly backs the Bush tax cuts, but also says they should “go deeper and further.” He specifically cites abolishing the Death Tax as a case in point. (Almost always characterized as “more conservative than Rob Simmons,” Sullivan, like almost every elected Republican in Connecticut from Gov. Rell on down, says he is “pro-choice” on abortion, but he is opposed to any federal funding for abortions.)

For his part, Sullivan eschews labels and describes his philosophy as “believing in the Constitution. It’s wonderful. People in Congress should read it sometime.”

After Gillespie

When he accepted the Republican Party helm in Virginia six months ago, former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie assumed a unique role as the first former national head of a major party to go on to be a state party chairman. Virginia Republicans were excited about Gillespie’s selection, because they felt the Washington, D.C., “super-lobbyist” and friend of national Republican powers could attract heavyweight speakers to fund-raising events. Gillespie did quickly secure a number of ’08 presidential hopefuls — notably Fred Thompson, who drew an overflow crowd to Richmond for the state GOP dinner last month.

But two weeks ago, Gillespie stunned the party faithful when he decided to join the Bush White House in its final days as the replacement for Counselor Dan Bartlett, who is leaving the administration to go home to Texas. Gillespie’s decision leaves Old Dominion GOPers once again dealing with a bitter battle for the party chairmanship.

The Republican State Committee will meet July 14 to elect Gillespie’s successor. Right now, conservatives are lining up behind Charlie Judd, longtime conservative activist and executive director of the state party, for chairman. Such well-known conservatives as Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell and 1st District GOP Chairman Russ Moulton have weighed in for Judd, who is also reportedly Gillespie’s choice.

Former (1997-2001) Lt. Gov. John Hager, who now serves in the federal government as an assistant secretary of Education, has been calling up committee members and saying he will leave the Bush Administration to become a full-time party chairman if elected. Hager, who was backed by Blackwell and many other conservatives in his losing bid for the gubernatorial nomination in ‘01, is a well-liked figure throughout the party. “No, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like John,” one veteran party operative from McLean told me recently. “But he does have that one big problem — working for Warner.” He was referring to Hager’s surprise decision after leaving office to become — albeit briefly — the state’s homeland security chief under Democratic Gov. (2001-05) Mark Warner.
Running far behind Judd and Hager in the chairman’s race is Charles Smith, Virginia Beach GOP leader.


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