For Davis, It May Be Up or Out

Posted February 14, 2007 at 6:42pm

Most politicians tend to be wary of discussing their own futures. But Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) is remarkably candid about the crossroads he is approaching in Congress.

In a Tuesday interview, Davis said unambiguously that he will run for the Senate in 2008 if five-term Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) decides to retire.

“It is safe to say that I would run,” Davis said. “But if he does run, I would stand out front and take a bullet for him. I think the world of John. I would not do anything to undermine that.”

Davis also acknowledged that this could be his last term in Congress. He views 2008 as his best opportunity for a Senate run, and regardless of Warner’s decision he has doubts about seeking an eighth term in the House.

“I’ve talked to most of [the Virginia GOP delegation] and they all understand what I want to do at this point if [the Senate seat] opens. If it doesn’t open then that would probably be my last shot at doing anything state-wide,” he conceded, adding that he has little to no interest in other statewide offices such as the governorship.

Speculation abounded in the 109th Congress that Davis was mulling retirement, particularly as word surfaced in late 2005 that his name was floated to head up the powerful National Federation of Independent Business.

He is one Republican whose minority status would be unlikely to hurt his chances to land a lucrative job on K Street or elsewhere in the private sector, as he has built a reputation around his ability to work with Democrats.

Davis admitted that he considered retiring last year, but opted to run again in part because he believed the poor political climate would have led to Democrats picking up his Northern Virginia-based seat.

Davis, a former two-term chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is known as a cerebral tactician, and he often appears more comfortable talking about district demographics and historic electoral trends than the issues of the day.

“I think had I left last year, which we contemplated doing, [the seat] would have gone. I don’t think there’s any way you would have held the seat last year, but I don’t know that in 2008 we couldn’t hold the seat with the right candidate,” he said, adding that his leaving would depend greatly on his confidence that a Republican will take the seat.

“I haven’t made any decisions on anything at this point, but if I were to leave I’ll make sure we had a strong candidate lined up,” he said. “I’ve spent too much time building majorities as campaign chairman to just desert this seat.”

Had Republicans not lost the majority in November, Davis currently would be in his third, and last, term as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. If Republicans were to win a majority in 2008, Davis would lay claim to the gavel for one more term, which he noted is “not an irrelevant consideration” in weighing the pros of staying in the House.

Yet Davis’ tenure as chairman, coupled with his willingness to buck the party on certain issues, has sometimes made him the target of ire from his GOP colleagues. Heading into the 2006 election cycle, Davis was one of the more prominent Republicans publicly conceding that the majority was lost and the GOP was headed to a 30-seat loss, at a minimum — a pronouncement that did not engender good will from the rank-and-file or his own leadership.

He sent warning signals to the NRCC and then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in private memos last year advising the leadership to take certain legislative steps to head off losses, including enacting stronger lobbying and ethics reforms, that largely went unheeded.

An Independent Chairman

More than most GOP chairmen, Davis demonstrated a willingness to scrutinize the Bush administration, and his solid working relationship with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), on the committee sometimes aggravated more partisan GOP lawmakers.

“Being a committee chairman does not mean being negative all the time, that’s just not my style. When we think the Democratic majority is doing the wrong thing we’re going to be the first to blow the whistle on that,” he said. Democrats “are not wrong in everything they do, and we still have to move bills and shape bills and the like.”

Davis noted that he already has opposed the new Democratic majority on a number of policy issues, including a recent energy bill and legislation to raise the minimum wage. “I’m hardly a shill for them, but they are not wrong on everything.”

Now Waxman wields the gavel and Davis says the two continue to share a solid working relationship and regularly communicate on committee business. He said their shared stewardship over the committee’s controversial hearings in the 109th Congress over steroid use in professional baseball forged a strong bond.

“Everybody was against us when we did that, but we stayed together on that and it was good team-building for the committee. Nobody wanted to touch us when we started this thing. The president didn’t like it, [Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)] didn’t like it, but they all came around,” he said. “You don’t go through a team-building experience like that without building some rapport.”

He also inflamed his colleagues, GOP leaders, and the White House when he and Waxman released a committee report only weeks before the midterm election already tainted by GOP scandals that detailed disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s contacts with the administration and ultimately led to the resignation of Susan Ralston, a top aide to White House adviser Karl Rove.

Davis acknowledged Wednesday that there was blow-back from the decision to release the report so close to Election Day, but was he unapologetic about the move.

“There’s never good timing for an Abramoff investigation,” Davis said. “Look, this was the largest scandal to invoke Congress in 20 years and you didn’t want to say ‘Republicans aren’t doing anything.’ In fact, I feel a little bit vindicated because after [Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.)] and stuff, all this became blown up and lack of oversight became a major charge.”

As for the House’s current debate, Davis plans to join several of his moderate GOP colleagues this week by voting in favor of the Democratic resolution disapproving of President Bush’s Iraq strategy.

The Political Junkie

Despite Davis’ independent streak, his colleagues continue to rely on his prowess as a political tactician. NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) asked Davis to serve as his No. 2 for the upcoming 2008 election cycle as chairman of the executive committee.

Despite rumors last year, Davis denied that he ever considered another bid for the chairmanship. “If I really wanted to take a leadership role I would have run again for the chairmanship,” he said. “Tom Cole is a very good guy, a very smart guy, and I’m only doing it because he asked me. It’s nothing I would have volunteered for.”

Davis said there is no guarantee Republicans can regain a majority in one election cycle. “Nobody can answer that at this point because we don’t have any idea what the issue matrix will be, where the war will be, who the presidential candidates will be, but those are the major variables,” he said. “Having said that, looking at broad outlines, we have a number of Democrats who were carried in last time who were not first-tier candidates who will probably be vulnerable to a strong Republican challenge.”

Davis said there were “six to eight” seats that Republicans have a very strong chance to reclaim in 2008, including the seats formerly held by GOP Reps. Tom DeLay (Texas), Richard Pombo (Calif.) and Don Sherwood (Pa.), as well as Foley and Bob Ney (Ohio).

The Virginian

But Davis also knows that opening up a Democratic-trending seat like the one that he holds won’t be helpful to the GOP’s cause to make up ground lost in 2006.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connelly (D) is viewed as likely to run for Davis’ seat. Davis used the same board position as a springboard to Congress in 1994 and Connelly would be a strong contender.

While Davis said he would not abandon his seat without lining up a top-flight candidate — one who would undoubtedly fit the Congressman’s same moderate ideological mold — it also isn’t likely that conservatives in the district would pass up the opportunity to nominate one of their own.

If that happens, the fight for Davis’ seat could become an important junction in the larger struggle now facing Virginia Republicans, who rose to political dominance in the state in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Republicans have lost the past two statewide elections in the Commonwealth, and Northern Virginia is expected to be the epicenter of Democratic efforts to pick up state legislative seats this fall. Davis’ wife, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R), is among those facing a tough re-election contest.

Davis has been a vocal critic of his party’s growing reliance on catering to the needs of its conservative base, and if he does get the opportunity to seek statewide office it will be a test of whether party elders have been listening to his sermons.

He argues that Republicans’ old formula for getting elected — managing losses in Northern Virginia and then making it up with large margins in the rest of the state — is outdated and that his party will continue to lose if it does not accept that.

“The last Republican to be nominated from Northern Virginia was 1981 when it was 15 percent of the vote, now it’s doubled, and growing,” he said. “So I think anybody can do the math and say we need to bring it into the coalition. That means an acceptance sometimes of candidates that are going to have a little bit different issue matrix than people from southern Virginia.”

As a start, one of Davis’ constituents recently became state Republican Party chairman. Ed Gillespie, a lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman, took the reins of the party recently, although Davis said that his new position requires paying more attention to the party base.

If Warner does retire, Davis hardly would have the GOP field to himself. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R), who already has launched a quixotic 2008 presidential bid, has indicated interest in another statewide run and several of Davis’ House colleagues have Senate ambitions as well.

Davis has been the most aggressive in laying the groundwork for a 2008 run, spending part of the previous cycle traveling around the state.

But Davis also spent the bulk of his campaign war chest in 2006 not taking anything for granted in his race against an unknown and underfunded Democratic challenger.

He spent $3.3 million on his re-election , including more than $105,000 for polling despite the fact that he was not viewed as particularly vulnerable.

The survey data — much of which looked far beyond his own House race — is just one indication of how intimately involved Davis is in the local politics of his 11th district, which takes in most of Fairfax County and portions of Prince William County.

In the previous cycle he donated $45,000 to the Fairfax County Republican Committee, $45,000 to the Republican Party of Virginia and $180,000 to the NRCC.

The Congressman — who once coached a Little League team with now-Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) — also knows the importance of the grass roots.

In the previous cycle he also gave $7,300 to Little League teams in his district.