- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

Anti-tax champions say Virginia Republicans can get their party back on track by replacing “tax-and-spend” incumbents with true conservatives in tomorrow’s primary election.

“This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” said R. Scott Sayre, who is challenging three-term state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., Augusta County Republican.

The outcome of the nine Senate primaries and seven House primaries will set the lineups for the November general election, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs.

Conventional wisdom and internal polling suggests that the deep-pocketed incumbents will win re-election. But anti-tax activists hope voters will sweep new blood into office, replacing what they call “two-faced” Republicans who have dismissed the fundamental party tenets of lower taxes and smaller government.

“Republicans both nationally and on the statewide level have campaigned on those principles but have abandoned them to some extent when they govern,” said Joseph E. Blackburn, a lawyer challenging Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican.

“If I can win this race, I think it will send a message to the rest of the senators that tend to vote with the Democrats on tax issues that maybe they better re-evaluate their positions and find ways to meet the core functions of government without looking back to the people for their hard-earned money,” Mr. Blackburn said.

For months, incumbent senators — including Mr. Stosch, Mr. Hanger, J. Brandon Bell of Roanoke and Marty E. Williams of Newport News — have been derided with the title “RINO,” or “Republican in name only.” The criticism stems from their support for either former Gov. Mark Warner’s $1.38 billion tax increase in 2004 or Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s failed attempt to raise additional statewide taxes for transportation.

“It’s time to end the tax-and-spend cycle Virginia families have been subjected to because of RINOs who campaign as fiscal conservatives but govern as Ted Kennedy liberals,” said Phil Rodokanakis, president of the anti-tax Virginia Club for Growth. Mr. Rodokanakis endorsed Mr. Bell’s opponent, former Roanoke Mayor Ralph Smith.

In television ads aired by Mr. Blackburn, the narrator asks, “Remember Walter Stosch promising not to raise taxes? Well as senator, he voted to raise over $3 billion in new taxes.”

Not true, Mr. Stosch says.

He has spent nearly $1 million reminding voters that while the 2004 tax revenue reform plan raised the sales tax a half-cent, increased real-estate transaction taxes and boosted the cigarette tax, it also cut the food tax, ended the marriage penalty and changed the income-tax filing threshold so thousands of the state’s poorest residents no longer had to pay taxes.

“They are telling half the story,” Mr. Stosch said of Mr. Blackburn and his supporters. “These various fringe groups … have a mile-wide opinion and a quarter-inch deep analysis.”

Mr. Blackburn, who was endorsed by former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, responded by saying, “If you put a dime in my left pocket and take a dollar out of my right pocket, that is a tax increase.”

By most accounts, Mr. Hanger is in the most competitive race. Seven county and city Republican committee chairmen in the district — including the chairman in Mr. Hanger’s home county — are supporting his opponent, Mr. Sayre.

In addition to reminding voters of Mr. Hanger’s support of the 2004 tax increase, Mr. Sayre has criticized Mr. Hanger for supporting a measure that would have barred most illegal aliens from getting in-state college tuition but left a loophole open for illegals who met certain criteria.

“You are basically taking my son’s and daughter’s college slots and giving it to an illegal immigrant,” Mr. Sayre said.

Mr. Hanger said his opponent fails to mention that he successfully sponsored a sweeping reform package in 2005 that denied illegal aliens public benefits, including access to Medicaid, welfare and local health care services.

Mr. Hanger and Mr. Stosch have been endorsed by House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, and George Allen, the popular former governor and senator.

The intraparty contests reflect the philosophical divide over “fiscal responsibility” that has existed in the party for several years.

“There are those for whom there has to be ideological purity and the tax issue is an absolute litmus test,” said J. Scott Leake, a strategist for Senate Republican leadership. “I also believe there is a strong majority of other folks that think fiscal responsibility means more than just no new taxes.”

Anti-tax groups celebrated earlier this year when two of their top Republican foes in the Senate, John H. Chichester of Stafford and H. Russell Potts of Winchester, announced their retirements.

Several Republicans say recent history has shown that primary challenges hurt the party.

“I think that it’s a small percentage of those that call themselves Republican who create these challenges which are costing Republicans millions of dollars to come up with a nominee,” said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, Fairfax County Republican. “That leaves them with precious money left in the general election.”

This is the second consecutive election in which anti-tax groups worked to unseat incumbent Republicans. In 2005, the Virginia Conservative Action PAC went after six of the 17 House Republicans who supported Mr. Warner’s tax increase.

Youth minister Chris S. Craddock defeated incumbent Delegate Gary A. Reese in the June 2005 Republican primary but lost the November general election.

“The only result was there was not one single new Republican was elected, and we lost one seat to a Democrat,” Mr. Stosch said.

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