Virginia GOP Faces Rousing Brawl

Virginia’s Grand Old Party is in for a good old-fashioned fight when it meets on May 30 and 31. Two contests will draw close to 4,000 delegates from across the Commonwealth to the Richmond Convention Center: one for a nominee to take on former Gov. Mark Warner for John Warner’s United States Senate seat, and the other to pick the party’s state chairman.

In a contest that many believe he will win, former Gov. Jim Gilmore faces off with 17-year State Delegate Bob Marshall. Governor from 1998 to 2002, Gilmore inspired the allegiance of party stalwarts when he stuck with his campaign promise to eliminate the car tax as governor, despite scathing attacks by Democrats and some Republicans. While Gilmore has suffered as a result of deep splits with Republican legislators during his term and his take-no-prisoners approach to anyone, regardless of party affiliation, who gets in his way, his long relationship with Republicans statewide will be a tremendous boost.

Known for his consistent and outspoken opposition to abortion, Marshall faces an uphill battle against the better-known and better-financed Gilmore. Marshall earned voter kudos for opposing an “abusive driver fee” bill that passed the General Assembly overwhelmingly last year, only to be the subject of statewide voter outrage once the hefty fees were imposed. He has also received statewide exposure from his recent Virginia Supreme Court victory. Marshall challenged the taxing power of regional transportation authorities, and won a ruling that non-elected bodies cannot levy taxes on Virginia citizens.

While Marshall has motivated social conservatives who often make up a majority of convention-goers in Virginia, Gilmore expresses great confidence that the nomination will be his. He has secured the important endorsements of the Republican lieutenant governor and attorney general, and from more elected officials than Marshall, but as is always the case with conventions, it’s all about turnout: Which candidate can get his supporters to Richmond.

In the general election, the victor will face former Gov. Mark Warner, whom the state and national media steadfastly label as “moderate.” Warner is largely untested, having easily defeated Republican Mark Earley in his principled, but poorly run race for the governor’s mansion in 2001. After campaigning on a promise not to raise taxes, Gov. Warner quickly spearheaded a successful effort to do just that. Gilmore or Marshall can be expected to assail Warner for his duplicity in pushing through the largest tax increase in Virginia’s history.

Hager vs. Frederick

The intensity of the Senate race, however, may pale in comparison to the sparks that will fly in the race for state party chairman between the current party chairman, retired businessman John Hager, 71, and a conservative young delegate from Northern Virginia, Jeff Frederick, 32. Hager became chairman ten months ago, when Ed Gillespie resigned to fill Karl Rove’s shoes in the White House. Hager, who had run for party chairman in 1992 and lost, ran again, this time defeating Gillespie’s executive director of the party, Charlie Judd, by two votes.

Hager’s supporters, including most of the party’s congressional district chairmen from across the state, argue that now is not the time to change leadership—in the middle of the presidential and U.S. Senate races. They wrote in a recent letter: “Let us tell it like it is, now is not then time for disruption. Now is the time for us all to be together on the same page, working for the same cause and generating results.”

According to Hager, his many years of party involvement, including his election as lieutenant governor in 1997 and his tenure in President Bush’s administration as assistant secretary of the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education, position him to lead the party with a steady, firm hand.

It doesn’t hurt that Hager’s son, Henry, just married the President’s daughter, Jenna. President Bush may be beleaguered in national polls, but by the party’s faithful who pack conventions, he is adored.

Jeff Frederick’s band of insurgents argue that unless new, dynamic leadership is elected to bring about a “rebirth” of the party, Republicans, who suffered losses in the General Assembly elections last year, will lose only more elections. Frederick claims his ability to win his own election as a conservative in a Democratic-leaning district in Northern Virginia, combined with his experience running his own technology company, is just what the party needs. And his reputation as an aggressive young legislator with innovative ideas about campaigning isn’t hurting him among younger Republicans itching for big changes.

It’s shaping up as a heated contest, with the Frederick campaign attacking Hager for serving in Gov. Mark Warner’s administration (until he resigned when Warner proposed his tax increase) and the Hager campaign attacking Frederick as an inexperienced hothead prone to “rantings.” The blogs contend that Frederick is outworking Hager, and yet as one party regular from Southwest Virginia put it: “There’s just something about John Hager. Everyone just likes him.”

Warm-Up for November

Both candidates say they have the expertise to guide the state party in a difficult national climate. Hager claims to have righted the party’s woes; Frederick says unless something is done, the hemorrhaging has just begun.

While most of the party leadership has endorsed Hager, some believe that’s not necessarily a reliable indicator of what the race’s outcome will be. They say many who believe the party is on the wrong track are supporting Frederick quietly out of respect for Hager’s long involvement in the party and his connections to President Bush.

If district conventions are any indication, there is a change mood among the grassroots of the party, with conservatives picking up seats on the state party’s central committee in some congressional districts. It remains to be seen if that translates to a push for change at the state level. Whatever the outcome and when the dust settles, one thing is for sure: Virginia Republicans will have to show gleeful Democrats, who are reveling in the spectacle of an intraparty contest that is not their own, that these convention contests are just a warm-up to the real fight, against the real foe, in November.