One Man's Trash

Norman Leahy


Still Time for Surprises


The U.S. Senate race is shaping up as a match between Jim Gilmore and Mark-not-John Warner. But Gilmore doesn't have a lock on the nomination yet: There is running room to his right.


The race to replace Sen. John Warner has gotten a bit more interesting.


Mark Warner is already in, and the money is flowing fast and furious into his coffers. Confident Democrats and the press have all but elected him to the office and consider the election to come as more of a nuisance than contest. 


That’s not what’s interesting – though it does have a certain Allen-like quality to it. What is of interest are the events on the Republican side, where the Tom Davis has folded his tent before the race has even begun, leaving Jim Gilmore with what seems to be a clear shot at a nomination no one else seems to want.


Or does it?


For those who pinned their hopes on a Davis candidacy, his decision to withdraw (but hardly gracefully), there is a sense of dismay. A good man, but more importantly, a consistent winner in the great GOP sinkhole that is Northern Virginia, has ceded the field to a man – Gilmore – who is so unpopular, so polarizing, that he cannot possibly mount a credible challenge to Warner.


There’s a lot to this. Yes, Gilmore is a polarizing figure, for both Republicans and pretty much everyone else. He can be abrasive, high-handed, even down-right vicious (just ask Panny Rhodes). The press dislikes him, the Democrats can’t wait to run against him and… well, you get the idea. 


But he’s also a very smart, very tough – and so far, undefeated – campaigner. He sticks to bread-and-butter conservative issues and makes no excuses for championing them. And yes, he does have a very loyal following within the party. While his quixotic presidential bid did him few favors, playing in Virginia, the turf he knows so well, will make him a formidable candidate.


Unless someone else comes into the race and challenges Gilmore where he is most vulnerable: from the right. 


Yes, from the right. Some people won’t remember it, but Gilmore presided over an enormous expansion in state spending. In the Cato Institute’s 2000 fiscal report card on the nation’s governors, Steve Moore wrote that:


…Gilmore’s budget grade is one of the worst in the nation. The state budget has grown the fifth fastest in the nation: after accounting for increased local reimbursements as a result of the car tax, it rose almost 3 percent faster than population growth and inflation. State spending since 1998 has even grown 2 percent faster than personal income— Virginia has the sixth highest rate of income growth in the nation— during a period when most states have seen state spending shrink as a percentage of residents’ wealth. Most of the increased spending was on grades K-12 and state universities, accounting altogether for about 25 percent of his $3 billion in proposed new spending for 2000–02. Gilmore recently suggested that he may need to put a stop to the car tax repeal if revenue projections aren’t met. Yet it is obvious that if spending hadn’t ballooned during his term, plenty of money would be left for the car tax cut. His spending hikes could seriously jeopardize the fiscal legacy of Governor Gilmore.


Sure enough, that’s what happened.

There is also the matter of where Gilmore stands on social issues and the Iraq War. Writing at National Review Online, Kate O’Bierne noted that:

Like [Tom] Davis, Gilmore is pro-choice (supports abortion during the first trimester). On the war in Iraq, he is to the left of Davis. In a Washington Post op-ed in June, he argued for a "limited deliberate drawdown" of American troops, though earlier in the year he had backed the surge. He acknowledged that the U.S. can't "abandon Iraq," so he favored fewer troops with a limited mission. Although during his term he significantly cut the state's unpopular car tax, local anti-tax activists criticize Gov. Gilmore for big spending increases during his tenure. In the absence of a solid conservative GOP successor, a Warner announcement that he will seek another (final) term could be welcome news. Amazing.

Amazing, indeed. But if Beltway conservatives aren’t comfortable with Gilmore, does that really matter? Probably not too much. If anything, that disconnect might actually work to Gilmore’s favor. After all, one loses very few votes running against the establishment, even the conservative one.


Nevertheless, there are those who have decided that Gilmore’s lax spending habits, lack of social conservative credentials and the general cloud that surrounds his final days as governor demand a different candidate.


A number of names have been floated, but, so far, there have been no takers. Eric Cantor would be a good choice, coming from a safe Republican district and sporting undoubted conservative credentials. But he’s so far shown no interest in making a run. Former RPV chairman Ed Gillespie’s name was briefly mentioned, as was Kate Obenshain’s. Even Jerry Kilgore’s name has been batted about, if only briefly.


But the more intriguing for some is that of Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There is a blog site devoted to the cause, and the movement has gotten some notice both in Virginia and nationally.


Can this movement go anywhere? Well, part of the thinking may be that it worked for the Democrats and Jim Webb, so the Republicans can do it too. That’s not much to go on, but the parallels with the Allen-Webb race would be so numerous as to possibly diminish any Gilmore effort to change the narrative. 


Unlike Gilmore, Pace also has the support of the same National Review crowd that so dislikes Gilmore, writing of Pace that:

As a veteran of the Pentagon’s senior ranks, he would have a commanding advantage  over all other candidates on national-security issues. Unlike other senior military leaders, the Catholic General Pace has been outspoken about his conservative beliefs on social issues. In defending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, he has forthrightly explained that he believes homosexual conduct to be “immoral” behavior that the military shouldn’t condone. Adultery, too, should not be tolerated in the military’s ranks, he has said.

So Pace might bring a strong social conservative bent to the race, in addition to his national security experience, which would also tend to counter Gilmore’s own national security work on terrorism issues.


The big question is whether Pace would be willing to enter the political fray. So far, he’s shown no inclination to do so. And given the tenor of last year’s Senate contest, I cannot blame him for any reluctance he may have.


Still, if he should decide to answer this call, it would make for one of the more interesting, and one hopes, informative primary campaigns Virginia has seen in some time. It would also provide Republicans with the opportunity to present a real choice to voters in the general election.


That’s something they desperately need to do. One knock against Tom Davis is that, as a moderate Republican, he wouldn’t provide voters with a clear alternative to Warner. And when the distinctions are too few, voters tend choose the candidate they know best, giving Warner the clear advantage.


But as of now, it’s all Gilmore. Perhaps he can beat Warner. After all, anyone can be beaten. (Just ask George Allen.) But Republicans would do themselves an enormous amount of good if they have a choice when their nominating convention meets. If Pace doesn’t jump in, someone else should.


I wonder… what does Ken Cuccinelli’s calendar look like late next spring?


-- October 29, 2007
















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Norman Leahy, a senior copywriter at a Richmond-area marketing agency, lives in the leafy suburbs of Henrico County. 


Read his profile here.