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Virginia group stays true to message

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Virginia conservatives say they are galvanizing their base and raising money to elect candidates who share their core principles, even if that means campaigning against Republicans.

"We're looking at good, fiscal conservative candidates for 2007 and are very excited about getting them elected to the Virginia Senate, where we believe the real leadership problems exists," said Robin DeJarnette, executive director of the Virginia Conservative Action PAC (VCAP).

Virginia's conservative campaign mirrors a national movement that ascribes the Republicans' historic losses in Congress last month to the Bush administration and national Republicans' abandonment of conservative tenets such as limited spending, lower taxes and enforcement of immigration laws.

VCAP aims to identify 1 million supporters in key districts before elections next year, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly will be at stake.

The group has raised $1.5 million and has pinpointed 400,000 conservatives, many of whom live in Northern Virginia, where Republicans have struggled in recent statewide elections.

A recent VCAP fundraising event featuring former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, sold tickets for $200 to $1,000 and collected $25,000.

Republican strategist Craig Shirley, VCAP's honorary finance chairman, said the campaign undercuts the misconception that Republicans and conservatives are one and the same.

"I'm a conservative first and Republican second," he said.

Among conservatives, state Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester of Stafford County symbolizes Republican neglect of conservative values.

In 2004, Mr. Chichester teamed with then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, to push through the largest tax increase in Virginia history, after having campaigned in 2003 as a "leader in the fight for lower taxes."

The tax increase occurred after voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads in 2002 overwhelmingly rejected referendums that would have raised their sales taxes for regional transportation projects.

"It's best for our Republican Party when we have Republican officials that stay true to the message of fiscal conservatism and restraint, smaller government and lower taxes," said Russ Moulton, chairman of the state Republican Party's 1st Congressional District Committee.

"The challenge for us is to propose solutions to our problems that are consistent with the principles Virginians want us to have," Mr. Moulton said, "the principles they supported when they put us in the majority."

Mr. Chichester, however, said that VCAP represents the outer fringe of the conservative ideology.

"You have the Grover Norquists on one side and the Barbra Streisands on the other side," he said. "The vast majority of Virginians are in neither of those two corners. I'm a conservative. I'm in the mainstream of Virginia thinking, which is fiscal conservative and a little more moderate on the social end of issues."

He said the 2004 tax package helped maintain the state's a AAA bond rating and helped Virginia be named the best state for business, adding that the state has the 41st-lowest tax rate in the country.

"When you have all those attributes there must be something correct going on in Virginia," Mr. Chichester said.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, the newly elected chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said the state party will support whoever wins the Republican nominations and will work to unify the philosophical divisions in the party.

"Any party has folks who are more conservative and less conservative," Mr. Gillespie said. "In a commonwealth as populous as Virginia, either of the two parties is essentially going to be a coalition."

Mr. Shirley said last month's elections showed what happens when conservatives embrace "big government."

"I would say that if they learned anything from this election is that defense of the status quo is not an ideology," he said.

Republicans lost control of the House and the Senate in last month's national elections. Virginians elected Democrat James H. Webb Jr. for the Senate, rejecting the re-election bid of Sen. George Allen, a Republican.

Some Republicans say Mr. Allen lost because his conservative message was muddied by miscues, negative television ads and, as Mr. Shirley has put it, consultants who "couldn't find an ideology with a flashlight and GPS."

"His campaign this year was much different than his run for governor," Mrs. DeJarnette said. "His campaign was so good for governor because he had a clear message pushing parole reform, education reform and welfare reform."