Gizzi on Politics: January 7-11

Tom Davis’s Guessing Game

“All political careers end in failure,” was an axiom often cited by British politician Enoch Powell. While Rep. Tom Davis (R.-Va.)—a true political junkie who would interrupt meetings to call me to point out errors he had spotted in our “Political I.Q.” feature—might argue with the sentiment, Davis is now keeping pundits and pols guessing about whe-ther he is ready to end his own political career in ’08.

As the Washington, D.C.,-area congressman’s political plans are the subject of increasing speculation in the local press, Davis told me last week that he is “genuinely undecided” about whether to seek re-election next year or go into private business.

“I’m not going to make a decision this week,” said Davis, responding to speculation that he might make an announcement soon as to whether or not he would seek an eighth term as congressman from the Northern-Virginia-based 11th District. But Davis, a past chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, did hint he would make a decision by the end of January.

In October, Davis told a packed breakfast of reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that he would not run for the seat of retiring Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.) in ’08. But he held back on whether he would run again for Congress, saying only, “We have to have something to talk about at a future breakfast.” After the November defeat of his state senator-wife Jeannemarie for re-election, speculation mounted that Davis himself would call it quits from politics and enter the private sector. Even political opponents agree that the congressman—a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee with a Library of Congress-like knowledge of the details of politics around the nation—could easily command a seven-figure income in lobbying or government relations. In ’05, Davis came close to quitting Congress outright to take a high-paying job with the National Federation of Independent Business.

“But the question for me now is what do I want to do at this stage of my life,” said Davis, who turned 58 January 5. The congressman’s personal goals aside, many of his fellow Northern Virginia Republicans worry that, without him, his district will fall to a well-known liberal Democrat—either Gerry Connelly, who succeeded Davis as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 1995, or Leslie Byrne, who held the 11th District from 1992 until being unseated by Davis two years later. Davis supporters privately cite polls showing their man could defeat either Democrat and are confident both Connelly and Byrne will take a pass on the race if the incumbent runs again.

Without Davis, the GOP picture appears dim. More than likely, the Republican nominee will be someone in the Davis mold: conservative on fiscal issues, more moderate on social issues. Lawyer Michael Powell, son of Colin Powell and a past chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, emerged as a possible candidate, but he has opted against running. A close Davis ally, former Prince William County Board Chairman Sean Connaughton, is also mentioned for the seat but is considered unlikely to run. At this point, the most probable GOP candidate is businessman Keith Fimian, who shares most of Davis’s positions and has considerable personal wealth he could use on a campaign.
Should Davis say he isn’t running, he will be the 19th Republican House member to be a “no go” for ’08.

What Is Hastert’s Endorsement Worth?

In election cycles from 2000-06, J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) was one of the most-sought-after campaigners for Republican candidates. The speaker of the House, the top Republican office-holder in the nation after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, was probably better liked personally among the GOP grass-roots than the President or Vice President. The one-time high-school wrestling coach was “the Coach” to county leaders, donors and party workers—a lovable, bear-like figure who never said a harsh word about political opponents. He could be counted on to pack a GOP fund-raising dinner with contributors from disparate party factions.

With the Republican loss of the House in ’06 and Hastert’s announcement last year of his retirement from Congress, clearly the appeal of “the Coach” as a party fund-raiser was diminished, even though he was the first former House speaker since fellow Republican Joe Martin of Massachusetts to stay in the House as one of the ordinary members after relinquishing his gavel.

Now he has resigned from Congress altogether, and the question for pundits and pols is: What is Hastert’s backing currently worth in his own district? Two weeks ago, the former speaker weighed in with a strong endorsement in the Republican primary and special election in February of investment banker and dairyman Jim Oberweis as his successor in the 14th District. In any past election cycles, Oberweis could not have been blamed for checking out houses in the Washington area or interviewing staffers had he been endorsed in a primary by Speaker Hastert.

But this year, Denny Hastert is no longer “Mr. Speaker” or “Congressman Hastert” but “Mr. Hastert.” And that could make a great difference.

Oberweis’s leading primary opponent is State Sen. Chris Lauzen, one of the “Fabulous Five” conservative Republican legislators ever since winning his first term in Springfield in 1992. Oberweis is also conservative and there is little disagreement on issues between the two save who should be congressman from the 14th District.

Following Hastert’s blessing of Oberweis, Lauzen promptly did what would have been considered the equivalent of laughing aloud in church in 14th District GOP politics a year ago: He took a whack at Hastert.

“Former Congressman Hastert’s decision to endorse Oberweis is what this campaign is all about—big money and big insider establishment clout versus the rest of us in the grassroots,” said Lauzen.

“The Hastert endorsement may be good for Oberweis, who has lost all three political races he’s ever run, including the 2002 Senate race, also with Hastert’s endorsement, but it’s bad for the people and bad for unity in the Republican Party,” said Lauzen. “Hastert has resigned. Oberweis is running against me. Let the people decide.”

Strong medicine, all right. We’ll know if it works soon enough. The Republican primary takes place February 5—the same day as the primary for the full term. And the special election will be held March 8.

Bush Down in Buckeye State

The easy special election win of Rep. Bob Latta (R.-Ohio) last month (See December 17 Human Events.) was all the more impressive in view of the fact that the President’s polling numbers are at a record low in Ohio. According to the latest University of Cincinnati poll, only 31% of Ohioans say that Bush—who has twice won their state’s electoral votes—is doing a good job. The survey also found record-low approval ratings for his performance in foreign affairs (33%), Iraq (31%) and the economy (34%). In addition, the poll found that a majority of evangelical Protestants disapprove of Bush’s handling of Iraq and foreign policy.

The same survey also showed that Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland not only has 69% approval statewide but that more Republicans approve of his performance than Bush’s—65% to 60%. Although Strickland is not up for election until 2010, such numbers obviously cannot be encouraging to well-known Republicans such as former House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich and former Office of Management
and Budget Director Rob Portman, who are now reportedly considering bids
for governor.