- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

RICHMOND — Democratic state conventions have been somber affairs in recent years, lamenting the party’s fall from power as Virginia Republicans made their conventions celebrations of their legislative and electoral victories.

Not this weekend.

The state Republican Party convenes in Richmond today wondering how a Republican-run legislature passed wholesale tax increases, why Democrats last fall gained House seats for the first time in 28 years and what Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is doing competing in Virginia.

For those same reasons, the state’s Democrats are almost giddy as they assemble in Roanoke for their weekend convention.

“The last time I can remember the party being this upbeat and unified was back when Doug Wilder was elected governor” in the late 1980s, said state Democratic Chairman Kerry Donley. “This is the sentiment we’ve been feeling since last November.”

The Democratic resurgence combined with President Bush’s ebbing poll numbers has emboldened Mr. Kerry to air campaign ads in Virginia, a state that hasn’t backed a Democrat’s White House bid since President Lyndon Johnson’s slim victory in 1964.

“It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?” said Gov. Mark Warner, who stopped the Democratic skid with his election in 2001.

Mr. Warner, a hero to his party, will miss the weekend’s festivities to start a trade mission to Asia.

It’s not as if Virginia’s conservative voters are about to strip the Republicans of their majorities in the General Assembly. The GOP also controls eight of the state’s 11 U.S. House seats and both of its U.S. Senate slots.

But it’s a party still seething from a tax battle it lost after 17 House Republicans defied the state party’s official, written antitax doctrine this spring and sided with 35 Democrats to pass a $1.4 billion boost in sales, cigarette and deed-recording taxes.

Sen. John H. Chichester of Stafford and other Republican senators, who at one point championed nearly $4 billion in new taxes, never planned to attend the annual convention, which conservatives routinely dominate.

However, other Republicans will be staying away, including many of the breakaway delegates. Even House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, has other plans for today.

Delegate Dave Nutter, Montgomery County Republican, has had antitax groups target voters in his district with telephone calls critical of his support for the tax compromise. He will stay home with his family for the weekend, having seen enough of Richmond during the unprecedented 115 straight days that the legislature spent in session to pass a budget.

“Some of the hard [Republicans] need to step back a little bit. None of us are thrilled with what happened, but even on these issues the Republicans are more united than people realize,” Mr. Nutter said.

“I just think we need to ratchet this thing down a little bit and remember what unites us.”

Delegate L. Preston Bryant Jr., a leader of the 17, endured withering denunciations from conservatives within his own caucus this year. He said he will remain in Lynchburg to catch up on work backlogged from the lengthy budget battle.

Mr. Bryant, Mr. Nutter and Delegate Harvey B. Morgan, Gloucester Republican, said they were received warmly at local party gatherings and at congressional district-level Republican conventions they have attended. Few people have confronted them about their votes for the tax and budget packages.

They also said they see state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor next year, as the best hope for reunifying the party.

James Parmelee, an antitax activist who heads the Northern Virginia Republican PAC, said the 17 House members and senators who broke with the party’s “no-tax-increase” line would find little comfort from the crowd at the Richmond Convention Center.

“Republican activists across the state and just average voters have been coming up to me and saying ‘What’s going on? Why did these guys do this?’” Mr. Parmelee said.

Mr. Morgan said he wouldn’t feel comfortable, and with no statewide candidate running this year, he has no reason to attend.

“To quote Newt Gingrich, he said people just to the right of center and just to the left of center can win elections. Go too far either way and you can’t win, and that’s what happens to us if we go too far to the right,” Mr. Morgan said.

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