Guest Column

Peter Ferrara


Gameplan for a

Conservative Renaissance

Let's get real. The 2005 elections were a disaster for low tax conservatives. Running principled candidates is not enough. We need to organize, raise money, and get our message out.


No Republican in recent memory has been elected Governor in Virginia without supporting a major tax cut.


I was still in school in Massachusetts during the campaign of 1977. But in 1981, 1985, and 1989, Republican gubernatorial candidates downplayed the tax issue out of deference to Northern Virginia business donors. They all lost.


In 1993 and 1997, Republicans George Allen and Jim Gilmore ran on specific, major, tax -cut platforms, and they won in landslides. They told the Northern Virginia business donors to get lost and got their money elsewhere.


But in 2001 and 2005 Republican candidates Mark Earley and Jerry Kilgore went back to those donors and the 1980s playbook, and Republicans went back to losing the Governorís race.


So, instead of those ads on the death penalty, Kilgore would have done well to run ads on the explosion of taxes and spending in Virginia since 1998, the outrageous 2004 tax increase, the need to finish the car tax cut, and the urgency of property tax relief. Kilgore did hold all those positions, but he was quiet as a mouse about them during the campaign. Instead, he talked a good line on every other conservative issue that voters didnít care about.


The election data shows that Kilgore ran behind other Republicans in the Congressional districts represented by Republicans, indicating that conservatives disgusted over the tax issue just stayed home. The numbers indicate as well that unless Tom Davis gets religion over taxes and stops publicly attacking conservatives, there are going to be fewer Congressional districts represented by Republicans after the next election. Davis may need religion in a few other areas as well.


But conservatives gleeful over the defeat of Kilgore need to cork the champagne and take stock of the massive wreckage the 2005 elections have wrought for us. We hear a lot of simplistic talk about how Republicans just need to run consistently on conservative principle and they will win running away every time.


Yet, the most principled conservative in the General Assembly, Dick Black, also went down to defeat on Election Day. You wonít find a more principled conservative than Michael Golden, but he didnít get more than 40 percent of the vote in a delegate race in a Republican district. Highly principled Chris Craddock similarly didnít get over 40 percent in another Republican district. Thoroughly conservative Delegate Bradley Marrs seems to have lost in Chesterfield County.


Moreover, the 2005 results have catapulted Gov. Mark R. Warner to center stage for the 2008 Democratic ticket as a proven winner in a red state who even showed how to win massive tax increases from a Republican legislature and remain highly popular. The die has never been cast this early for a Presidential race, but you can start printing up those Clinton/Warner bumper stickers right now.


Worst of all, the debate over the 2004 tax increase is now over, and we the conservatives somehow lost. A candidate who consistently supported that unjustifiable increase from the beginning just beat a candidate who consistently opposed that increase in the Governorís race. How now do we challenge those Republican Senators who engineered that tax increase? By all indications, including Warner's massive public approval ratings, these senators were just doing the publicís will.


We couldnít possibly have had a stronger case against that increase. The data shows there never was that yawning deficit that Warner and Sen. John Chichester, Howard Deanís twin brother, kept telling us about. Indeed, after the largest tax increase in the history of the state, we ended up with a surplus bigger than the tax increase. Taxes were raised so that the booming, New York-style increase in state spending since 1998 could be increased even faster.


Indeed, the current data shows that by 2006 state spending will have increased 70 percent since 1998. Now that the tax increase has been electorally validated, Gov. Kaine will move swiftly to spend the $2 billion surplus to increase spending even more, while asking for a tax increase to increase state spending on top of that for roads.             


Moreover, the sales tax increase at the center of the 2004 tax increase had already been rejected by voters in the two most populous areas of the state. In passing it anyway, Warner and the Senate Republicans sent a message to voters that they are morons and no one cares what they think. Yet, after stomping all over his 2001 campaign pledge never to raise taxes and running a demonstrably dishonest tax-increase crusade, Warner ended up with a 70 percent voter approval rating.


Wake up conservatives! We have a more fundamental problem than Kilgoreís ads and stump speech. The problem is we are just not getting our message through to the public. The people do not hear us. We are not on radio and TV, or in the newspapers, in regard to Virginia issues. We do not sponsor forums to spread our message. We speak almost nowhere. We publish almost nothing.


The effect this can have when done right was shown in the 2003 sales tax referenda in Northern Virginia and Tidewater. There the media felt they had to present both sides to maintain credibility, so they sought us out. We were also organized and ready to take advantage of the opportunity.


We were consequently all over the media and the local forums, and our message was effectively presented. As a result, although we only spent less than one twentieth of what the Big Business and Big Government Yes supporters did, we thrashed them 55 percent to 45 percent in Northern Virginia, and 63 percent to 37 percent in Tidewater.


After that, however, the state and local media went back to being shills for the state and local governments, slavishly repeating the establishment party line almost as faithfully as the old Soviet media did for the Kremlin. Today only a few conservatives are effectively carrying on the public fight. John Taylor of Manassas and his allies are increasingly effective in promoting their specific, Reaganite, Freedom and Prosperity Agenda. Robert Dean and the insightful Reid Greenum are leading a loud and public conservative and libertarian crusade in Tidewater.  The Family Foundation is effective in promoting its social issue agenda. A couple of others are good at producing much needed, media ready stats.


But if conservatives are going to win consistently in this state, we need much more than that. The pro-tax, big government side is everywhere in the media, always, with slick, expensive forums, high paid lobbyists and publicists, and the always slavishly faithful media echo. And we are not going to win this fight just going to battle on our free time after work, as one supposed top conservative donor, more interested in preening than winning, suggested to me. We donít need the millions and millions the other side spends every year, but we do need at least one tenth of it.


Conservatives, therefore, need to reorganize to participate effectively in the public debate. That must start with a new funding base of patriots who want to win, not just appear to be leaders, on the cheap.


-- November 28, 2005
















Peter Ferrara is president of the newly formed Virginia Free  Enterprise Fund. His e-mail address is [email protected]