Gizzi on Politics: Dec. 3-7

Virginian GOPers and Their Conventions

Three weeks after they chose a nominee for the race to succeed late Republican Rep. (2000-07) JoAnn Davis and less than two weeks before the December 11 special election to fill her seat, Republicans in Virginia’s 1st District (Tidewater) are still animated when talking about their districtwide nominating convention. In what was a combination of high drama, intrigue and comedy, 11 candidates competed and five ballots were taken before one-term state legislator Rob Wittman won the GOP standard.

It’s fair to say that, in Virginia, Republicans historically prefer a convention to a primary and that conventions tend to yield the more conservative nominee. Those were the considerations behind the recent 47-to-37 vote by the Republican State Committee to hold a state convention to choose a candidate for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. John Warner. No sooner had the votes been cast at the committee meeting in Richmond than supporters of conservative former Gov. (1997-2001) Jim Gilmore proclaimed a major victory over more moderate Rep. Tom Davis, both of whom wanted to run for the Senate. Davis, a strong booster of primaries to pick candidates, quickly announced he was not running for the Senate after all.

After deciding on a convention to choose a nominee for Jo Ann Davis’s seat, Republicans had more than 1,200 delegates through mass meetings in towns and counties. But in opting for a convention, which was held at Caroline High School in Caroline County, thus “keeping it in the family,” the party also, in effect, decided that a lot of dirty linen was going to be aired publicly.

Airing Dirty Linen — In the Family

Although Wittman, a former mayor of Montrose and a former Westmoreland County supervisor, is considered a strong conservative on social issues and most economic questions, some on the right argued that the lawmaker had broken his no-tax pledge by voting for a controversial measure to permit localities to vote to raise taxes for improved transportation. State Delegate Jeff Fredrick, a conservative stalwart, delivered a stinging attack on Wittman at the convention for his vote on the transportation bill and for supporting large fines on abusive drivers. Wittmanites heartily booed Fredrick as he spoke.

For four straight ballots, Wittman trailed Paul Jost, a successful real estate developer who ran with the backing of many conservative organizations and leaders. Among his supporters were Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell, a nationally known conservative, the Club for Growth (of which Jost is Virginia state chairman) and the Lafayette (Virginia) Gun Club. Jost had also received “100%” ratings from Virginians for Life and the Virginia Gun Owners Coalition.

But other conservatives had some jaundiced views of Jost. When he ran for nomination to the seat the last time it was open in 2000 and placed second to Davis, the businessman-candidate was criticized by cultural conservatives for almost never mentioning abortion and other issues they cared about.

“And before that, when he lived in Alexandria and ran for the City Council, [Jost] filled out a questionnaire for a gay rights group that was very favorable,” one delegate to the 1st District convention told me. “When I asked how he had changed his views, he never gave me a really deep explanation.” The same delegate wound up supporting former State Delegate Dick Black, a strong cultural conservative who is from Loudon County, outside the district.

Along with Wittman — the lone current officeholder in the Republican pack — the strongest opponents to Jost were Sherwood Bowditch, whose mother was the longtime district aide to former Rep. (1976-82) and Sen. (1982-88) Paul Trible (R.-Virg.), and Chuck Davis, husband of the late congresswoman. Veteran Virginia political strategist Kenny Klinge, who ran the Wittman campaign, told me after the convention that “we had a gentlemen’s agreement with Bowditch and Davis. Namely, we had to make sure Jost wasn’t the nominee.” All three, according to Klinge, agreed that “Jost would be the weakest candidate in the special election.” Along with his changes on key issues, Jost, Klinge explained, would be particularly vulnerable for his role as state chairman for Club for Growth last year when the group helped defeat at least one Republican state senator and Democrats took control of the Virginia senate by one vote.

In Klinge’s words, “There were a lot of Republican voters who were just not going to stick with a candidate who kept the tie-breaking vote in the senate from [Republican Lt. Gov.] Bill Bolling.”

Jost led on the first five ballots and Wittman came in second. After the fifth ballot, Chuck Davis fell below the threshold required to remain a candidate and endorsed Wittman. Third-place Bowditch did the same, and when Jost, himself, then left the race, Wittman was nominated.

Given the 1st District’s 32-year history of electing Republican House members, Wittman is the favorite over Democrat Phil Forgit, a teacher and decorated Iraq veteran. But Forgit is also a strong campaigner and, given the unpopularity of George W. Bush, a number of Old Dominion Republicans say the outcome will be closer than usual.

Following Ferguson

The 17th Republican U.S. House member to announce his exodus in ’08 is Rep. Mike Ferguson of New Jersey’s 7th District. Like fellow Garden State retiring Republican Rep. Jim Saxton (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 71%), former teacher and four-termer Ferguson (lifetime ACU rating: 74%) was conservative on abortion and defense issues but voted non-conservative on many economic issues, including raising the minimum wage.

After the 37-year-old Ferguson made his announcement last week, a similar “no-go” was issued by State Sen. Tom Kean, Jr., namesake-son of the moderate former governor who was co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission. The younger Kean, who lost the primary for Congress to Ferguson in 2000, said he wanted to concentrate on his duties in Trenton.

Another heir to a famous name among moderates who is now being discussed as a GOP hopeful in the four-county district is Kate Whitman, 30-year-old daughter of former Gov. (1993-2001) Christine Todd Whitman. A former U.S. Labor Department official who now runs the Republican Leadership Council to advance non-conservative GOP candidates, Kate Whitman told reporters she was “definitely talking to people about it [running for Congress].” About the best thing most conservatives could say about the younger Whitman is that she once worked for a much-respected conservative on Capitol Hill, Rep. (1988-2005) Christopher Cox (R.-Calif.), now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Other Republican heavyweights considered likely to run for the seat are Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks, State Senate GOP Leader Leonard Lance and Tewksbury attorney Will Mennen, who just won a seat on the Hunterdown County Board of Freeholders. Both Lance and Mennen are considered moderates, while Marks is considered moderate-to-conservative.

The lone conservative leaning toward running is perhaps the most intriguing possibility. Michael Illions, who became famous as professional wrestler A.J. Sparxx, sent an e-mail to friends asking whether they thought he should make the race. Citing former wrestler-turned-Minnesota Gov. (1998-2002) Jesse “The Body” Ventura, the 42-year-old Illions, who now runs the blog Conservatives With Attitude, told reporters: “If Jesse ‘The Body’ can do it, I can do it.”

Whoever wins the Republican primary next year will face an unusually tough race in the district, which has been in GOP hands for more than a half-century. Last year, State Assemblywoman Linda Stender stunned observers by holding Ferguson to just more than 51% of the vote. Union County Democrat Stender has never stopped campaigning and so far has amassed a six-figure warchest for her second race in the 7th District next year.


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