Jo Ann Davis: Filling In

With the stunning news of the death of Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R.-Virg.) after a long bout with breast cancer last week, no one really wanted to talk much about what happens next in her now vacant 1st District (Tidewater-Newport News).  However, following the funeral of the four-term congresswoman and the plans for a special election soon to be set by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, maneuvering for nominations is expected to begin shortly.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the district have to decide the nomination process –either a primary or a districtwide convention.  The last time the district was open, when the late Republican Rep. (1982-2000) Herb Bateman stepped down in 2000, local Republican leaders opted for a primary and then-state legislator Davis topped four opponents with 35% of the vote.

The runner-up in that primary with 30% of the vote was Paul Jost, who had made a fortune in refrigeration equipment and real estate.  Although Jost spent more than $1 million out of his own wallet in the race, local observers concluded that his failure to emphasize cultural issues hurt him.  In contrast, Davis (who spent about one-tenth as much as Jost) hit hard at ending the marriage penalty, local control of education, and her strong pro-life and pro-Second Amendment stands. 

Jost has not said whether he will run, but his name keeps cropping up in early speculation.  The candidate who placed third (22%) in the 2000 primary, political consultant Michael Rothfeld — later made a bid for the state senate with Jost’s strong support.  Rothfeld is not thought likely to run and will almost surely back Jost if the local entrepreneur makes another race.

Several Republican state legislators are mentioned for the open 1st District, among them conservative State Delegate Scott Lingamfelter of Prince William County, a strong conservative, and State Sen. Tommy Norment of Williamsburg, who is considered more moderate.  One rumor just starting is that farmer Chuck Davis, JoAnne’s husband, could run for the seat.  However, Chuck Davis has never been active politically and thought unlikely to launch a career. (Only once in history has the husband of a U.S. Representative tried to succeed his wife; when Democratic Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman suffered a stroke in 1980 and her seat was declared vacant, husband Ira Spellman sought the Democratic nomination but lost the primary to Steny Hoyer, now the House Majority Leader).

The 1st District has been securely in Republican hands since 1976.  However, a special election presents a unique opportunity to the opposition party, particularly at a time when the Republican Administration is scoring modestly in public opinion polls.  Local and national Democrats are expected to come up with a stronger-than-usual candidate, with the name of Albert Pollard — now the Democratic nominee for an open state senate district — mentioned increasingly for the upcoming U.S. House race.