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Fight for the Right

Why Virginia's Republican Party is on the verge of a meltdown.


Now, all bets are off.

Like many of their Republican colleagues, the two men find themselves in opposite camps of a bitter ideological split within the state's ruling party.

On one side are moderate Republicans who control the Senate, where the veteran Hawkins resides. Schooled in the Gov. John Dalton tradition of the Virginia GOP, they favor a pay-as-you-go fiscal philosophy and take what they call a more inclusionary view of Virginia voters' needs.

On the other side are conservative Republicans, like Hurt — a minority in the Senate, but holding the reins of the House. Many are younger party faithful who quote Reagan. They're more socially conservative and anti-tax, preaching the smaller government mantra epitomized by former Govs. George Allen and Jim Gilmore.

This moderate-conservative divide has deepened since 2000, soon after Republicans triumphantly gained control of both chambers of the statehouse. It was the first time in a century Republicans had taken hold of the majority, compelling then-Gov. Gilmore to declare to jubilant supporters: "Free at last, free at last, free at long last! Democracy has finally come to the Commonwealth!"

But the afterglow of that historic election night soon diminished in the tug-of-war between the party's factions. Now, four years since leaving office, an exasperated Gilmore is attempting a comeback and sounding an alarm to his former colleagues. "The Republican Party is losing its message and theme to the people of Virginia," he says.

No solutions seem to be on the horizon. Republicans lost seats in the last election. Another Democrat governor has just taken office. Last week the Republican divide again contributed to the General Assembly's failure to finalize a budget. It was the third standoff since Republicans took over — a costly, once unheard-of situation. Next year, senators and delegates are up for re-election as competing political action committees within the party continue to raise money to oust fellow Republicans.

On a philosophical level, no one seems to be bending. On a leadership level, no saviors have emerged. The whole mess has some Republicans fearing, if not predicting, the demise of their short rule as the legislature's majority party.

The difference in party philosophy is no more pointed than in the battle over the state budget and how to pay for solutions to growing transportation problems in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Sen. Hawkins argued the moderates' point in a March 5 op-ed piece for the Danville Register & Bee. Along with Gov. Kaine and the Democrats, Senate Republicans believe the state needs an extra $1 billion a year to solve its transportation worries. Hawkins wrote about the need to ensure the money will be there in the long haul, through the Senate's plan of using the state surplus, along with increased auto fees and gas taxes.

Three days later, Hurt's dissenting opinion was published in the same newspaper. It echoed the belief of the conservative Republicans — that the Senate's plan is unnecessary because it raises taxes while the state is enjoying a $1.4 billion budget surplus. The state senate, Hurt wrote, is "signaling that they are prepared to close down the government if the House of Delegates does not do it their way on transportation spending and heap more taxes on Virginians."

On the day after Hurt's op-ed was published, the week before the General Assembly adjourned without a budget, Hawkins is in his Richmond legislative office. With a wall of his own landscape oil paintings behind him, he sits listening to the soothing strains of Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli. Hawkins is trying his best to relax before the afternoon session. It's not easy, given all the recent tensions.

Hawkins took Hurt under his wing and introduced him to the state GOP. He still has words of praise for his protégé, despite their dueling views in the budget standoff. "Robert Hurt probably has the greatest potential of anybody I know," Hawkins says.

Still, there's that sticking point. "I came up into a Republican Party where you live up to your responsibilities," he says. "You have to pay your bills."

The Senate thinks it should pay those bills with Virginia's surplus and increased taxes. The House thinks the answer is paying for a smaller, $500 million transportation plan by using the surplus and floating bonds.

On the surface, it seems like a difference of opinion that reasonable lawmakers could work out, particularly within their own party ranks. But it symbolizes the great divide over where the party should stand when it comes to fiscal responsibility.

"The stakes are so high, they both think they're right," says one Republican lobbyist. "I don't think anyone's willing to admit they're wrong" — especially the more conservative ideologues in the House, he says, who are less likely to compromise, taking more absolute positions.

The thinking among those House Republicans is that "if they start to cave on that issue of taxes — if they give in on that, they've lost the war," says a Republican political consultant. "The tax question is the conscience of the party."

But last week the disagreement boiled over, highlighting the personal nature of the fight. Beyond debates of law, it culminated in the House's refusal to confirm one of Gov. Kaine's cabinet nominees, labor leader Daniel G. LeBlanc — a first in Virginia politics. More directly antagonistic, House Republicans bristled at backing a commendation passed by the other chamber that recognized Sen. John H. Chichester, a fellow Republican, for a leadership award he'd received. The Senate eventually passed an independent version of the commendation.

Chichester, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the senior Republican in the Senate, has come to symbolize Republican moderates. He was one of the Senate's so-called Gang of Five that led a break from the party in 2004 to help Gov. Mark Warner pass a $1.5 billion tax increase intended to fix a gaping deficit.

During a break outside the Senate chamber Saturday afternoon, Chichester shakes his head at the mention of the House snub of his commendation. He acknowledges that fighting within his party has gotten ugly.

"I'm saddened by it," he says. "Because it's not the relationship that we enjoyed, certainly when I first got here, and enjoyed as much as 10 years ago. We were a very collegial body. We worked together in harmony for the same purpose. That doesn't seem to be the same like it used to be."

How did it get this way?

Taking office in 1994, Gov. Allen broke a three-term streak by Democratic governors. Soon he was meeting with Republican leaders to figure out a way to win the General Assembly too. If they could do it in Congress, they could do it in Virginia. When Allen left office in 1998, eventually to become a U.S. senator, he had sown the seeds of a full-fledged Republican takeover.

In came the conservative Gov. Gilmore, who galvanized the party by swooping into office with the "No Car Tax" rallying cry. He then turned his attention to the 1999 statewide elections, helping drum up more than $4 million for Republican races. Seats shifted, and the party gained control of both the House and the Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.

"After that," Gilmore says, "it was unpredictable what the result would be."

It should have been a new age for Virginia Republicans. But the new ruling party never really came together, says longtime political analyst Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"They kept quiet during [Gilmore's] campaign," Sabato says of Senate moderates such as Chichester, Walter A. Stosch and Kenneth W. Stolle. "From the very first, they saw that the car tax would potentially eat up a lot more of the budget than people would acknowledge at the time."

The budget battles over the car tax ultimately led to a stalemate in the Assembly in 2001. For the first time ever, lawmakers went home without a budget.

Gilmore places the blame on Senate moderates. "I didn't see any conservative Republicans adjourn in the face of the budget issue," he says. "That was recalcitrant to the highest possible degree."

The legislature's adjournment gave Gilmore carte blanche to rewrite the budget. That move backfired. The country was stuck in a recession, and Gilmore took the heat for what turned out to be more than a $1 billion budget deficit that moderate Republicans blamed on his car tax decrease. The Democrats pounced.

Those wounds have yet to heal, political observers say. One of the biggest consequences, Gilmore and others acknowledge, is that the issue helped pave the way for the election of Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner.

A businessman who appealed to moderate Republicans, Warner used that party's divide to his advantage, running an economy-first campaign against the socially conservative Mark Earley. Warner's ability to expose the rift underscores how political winds have shifted. How did he get a massive tax increase passed just five short years after Gilmore's wildly popular no-tax message?

Political observers say reading too much into a savvy campaign run by Gilmore is the first problem. The car tax was a cumbersome levy that was easy for voters to rally against. Warner's sales tax hike, on the other hand, appeared minuscule to voters at a half-cent. "It's hard to get your blood moving on that," Sabato says. Also, Gilmore's ascent didn't so much symbolize the strength of the conservative electorate, observers say. Rather, the political winds were already beginning to shift.

That's evident today, Sabato says. "We've moved past the era where every single tax increase is automatically opposed by the public," he says. "We're a long way from saying the public is opposed to taxes. Virginia is not what it was in 1993."

Neither is the country. The state of the Republican Party in Virginia echoes what the party is experiencing on a national level, says Daniel J. Palazzolo, associate professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Richmond. There's a split between Bush Republicans who press for tax breaks and social issues and those who want to regain the fiscal conservatism of Reagan's GOP.

"There is a bigger frame of reference that's going on in the Republican Party in general," Palazzolo says: "Taxes versus balance the budget. There are a few fiscal conservatives left.…That's why we have such a huge deficit at the national level."

In social matters, the party split is preventing far-right Republicans from hitting it out of the park with issues they hold dear: abortion, gun control and illegal immigration, to name a few. Some have criticized Jerry Kilgore for focusing too much on the death penalty issue in his failed bid against Kaine, saying it didn't connect with voters to his advantage. In this past assembly session, conservative House members addressed social issues with several pieces of key legislation. They passed overwhelmingly in the House, but failed in the Senate. The Republicans weren't going to the mat together over their importance.

To make matters more difficult for Virginia's conservatives, House Republicans still feel burned by Warner, who passed the largest tax increase in Virginia history with their help and wound up with a $1.4 billion surplus a year later. Was the tax increase necessary? Some say the surplus proves it wasn't. To some, it's a persuasive argument.

"The economy recovered so well, one could say we never really needed the tax increase," Palazzolo says. "If the economy had not recovered so well, I don't think the House Republicans could have dug in their heels so well."

The Republican split over Warner's 2004 tax increase had other consequences, too. It created fractures in the party's fund-raising machine, fueling the fires of political action committees intent on generally one of two things: rallying around moderates, especially those Republicans who voted for the tax increase, or ousting them.

Most visible was the Virginia Conservative Action PAC, for conservative Republicans intent on an anti-tax, limited government philosophy. At least 17 Republican delegates and six senators either gave or received money from the PAC, which raised nearly a half-million dollars in 2005, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

The PAC launched Republican candidates against those incumbents linked to Warner's tax hike. The lines were clearly drawn: Of the 23 Republicans aligned with the PAC, only one — Delegate Charles W. Carrico Sr. — voted for the tax increase.

In the Senate, the Republican Leadership Trust brought together moderates such as Hawkins, Chichester, Stolle and Stosch. The Republican Senate Victory PAC was created for conservatives such as Sens. Ken Cuccinelli and Stephen H. Martin.

That money should be paired with philosophies is not unusual. But one party was being represented by a variety of competing PACs. The result was that the Republicans' business became even more of a public spectacle, intensifying differences in the party and extending the fight of 2004.

Party supporters also should be careful of pitting one candidate against an incumbent just because that incumbent isn't lockstep with conservative philosophy, says Chad Dotson, who runs the widely read Republican blog Commonwealth Conservative.

"Too often we're falling into this cookie-cutter, conservative-liberal argument," says Dotson, a commonwealth's attorney for Wise County and the city of Norton. "We should be looking at individual districts."

In some cases, he says, it may be that the incumbent is the right fit for that district, and it's more important to keep the seat Republican. "We need all kinds," he says. "The Republican Party does itself no favors by trying to push people out."

Naturally, political parties will always have debates about important issues — and there can be a variety of opinions under one umbrella, political observers say. But there must be a consistent, general vision. And many Republicans say they're worried the party is woefully stuck at opposite ends, with little hope of reaching a common understanding - or, at least, finding a way to deal with philosophical differences that isn't self-destructive. Or so public.

Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, a conservative Republican from Hanover County, says feuding Republicans need not cast stones at one another. "I definitely follow Reagan's eleventh commandment," he says. "And that is: Don't say ill about your fellow party members."

Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., the renegade Republican who ran as an Independent for governor against party nominee Jerry Kilgore, didn't get that memo. "We absolutely have a death wish the way we are trying to govern," he says of the party, "particularly the members of the House of Delegates."

What will it take to bridge the divide? "You've got to go back to the middle," Potts says, which includes replacing Republican Party Chairman Kate Obenshain Griffin with a moderate "who understands that to have a great party, you have to have the party of the big tent. You have to have people of varying views."

Griffin was out of town and unable to arrange an interview for this story. But she has publicly called for the party to get back to its conservative core.

Chichester's solution is just the opposite.

"I think ultimately there'll be another majority if we don't see the error of our ways and try to become more of a centrist group," Chichester says. "I think we need to become more like Virginia is. Virginia has a large, center-of-the-road philosophy."

Eventually, one vision must take over, says Norman Leahy, a conservative who runs the political blog One Man's Trash. Or else both sides "get thrown in the minority and discover what it really is they believe in."

Perhaps the younger conservatives will just wait out the older guard of moderates. Or, some observers suggest, conservatives may grow tired of the fight. The struggle may tire volunteers, fund-raisers and voters in the process.

The senior Democrat in the House, Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall, whose district includes parts of Richmond and Chesterfield County, thinks he knows. "I believe the same thing is happening to the Republican Party that happened to the Democratic Party 30 years ago," he says. "The only difference is Republicans are a lot smarter than we were. It took us a hundred years to lose the majority, and it looks like the Republicans are going to do it in maybe eight to 10 years."

The problem is an "arrogance of power," Hall says. "They are letting a few people determine the course and direction of the party rather than the broad base."

In the budget battle, some say the Democrats will win no matter what. If there is no budget compromise, Kaine can argue that the Republicans blew the only chance for transportation reform. And if he wins, he can say he did so despite the efforts of House Republicans. In places such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, where jammed roads are the biggest daily obstacle many face, that's a political liability, says Palazzolo.

Once again, a Democratic governor has the upper hand. And the 2007 elections are coming. "That's going to be a donnybrook," Sabato says. "There are going to be real opportunities for the Democrats."

"Ultimately," Gilmore says, "the voters will correct this."

It's enough to give a Democrat a gleam in his eye. "I must admit," Hall says, "What's the old adage? If somebody's doing themselves in, don't get in the way." S

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