Widower Heads List of a Dozen GOPers Seeking Seat
Not long after the death of Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) a month ago, there was some speculation in Washington, D.C., that if the Congresswoman’s widower, Chuck Davis, sought the Republican nomination to fill his wife’s seat, then the road would be cleared for him heading into a special election.
It didn’t happen.
Although Chuck Davis decided to enter the race — which he said his wife encouraged him to do — the GOP field has grown to a dozen candidates since the Congresswoman died. And though the 58-year-old former firefighter is considered to be in the top tier of GOP candidates heading into this weekend’s Republican convention, it is far from certain that he will be representing his party in the special general election scheduled for Dec. 11.
Even considering the name recognition and the effect of sympathy votes for the Congresswoman’s widower, in hindsight it was probably naive to think Davis would go unchallenged by another Republican in a district so close in proximity to the politics of Washington, D.C., and where Republicans appear to have such a stranglehold on the seat.
“In situations like these where there is a Republican district with a strong Republican structure already built in, there is oftentimes going to be a number of potential candidates eyeing the seat,” one Republican Party source said on Monday. “It’s really not surprising that a number of Republicans have expressed interest in running being that this could be their only opportunity to run and win for quite some time.”
Davis’ biggest challengers heading into the nominating convention appear to be state Del. Rob Wittman (R) and party activist and businessman Paul Jost (R), who in 2000 challenged Jo Ann Davis in a five-way primary fight and last week picked up the endorsement of the powerful anti-tax group the Club for Growth.
But former state Del. Dick Black (R), who also is in the race, said last week that the unusually quick special election time frame plus the uncertainty of a convention that is coming right on the heels of today’s state legislative elections makes the Republican nomination for the 1st district a tossup.
“This is so volatile people can spike out and spike down in a matter of days,” said Black, who acknowledged that Davis was probably the frontrunner a few weeks ago. “I can’t tell you how many races I have seen where the supposed frontrunner puts out a lot of information about how invincible he is and as time goes on the person fades and someone else emerges.”
Black is touting his conservative voting record in state office to woo the party faithful heading into the convention.
On Monday, Davis said he isn’t thrilled with the convention format and that his wife wouldn’t like the idea of the nominating convention either.
“Jo Ann never liked a convention,” he said. “It can be manipulated to whoever can bring the delegates out.”
That’s the reason why so many candidates have come out of the woodwork looking to claim his wife’s seat, he said.
“My wife would be very disappointed in what’s happened but not surprised,” Davis said. “There’s so many people who have entered the race and some don’t even live in the district. Some of the people have just come into the district or have summer houses here but don’t really know the district.
“I’ve traveled with Jo Ann throughout the whole district and met people with her,” he said. “I was kind of like a co-pilot. I know the district, I know the issues and I know Washington, D.C. I know the committee assignments and I’ve met a lot of good people in Washington. … If you liked Jo Ann and where Jo Ann stood on the issues you’re going to like me because I’m just like her.”
Davis added that another problem with the convention format is “you’ve got some [regions] who have favorite sons in the race.”
But, he said, “what’s going to happen in a convention is, as the votes take place, the bottom person on the list will be dropped off until someone gets 51 percent of the vote. I’ve got commitments from groups that when their favorite son is eliminated they’ll come over to me.”
If he survives a tough convention fight and then the uncertainty that comes with any special election, Davis would become an interesting piece of Congressional history.
According to the House Office of History and Preservation, he would be the first widower to fill the Congressional seat of his late wife.
Although voters have a long history of electing the spouses of deceased Members of Congress, the trend always has been wives taking over after their husbands. According to the Office of History and Preservation, 47 women have succeeded their late husbands in Congress, 39 in the House and eight in the Senate.
Men have tried to take over for their Congressional wives, but so far have been unable to do so.
One interesting example would be that of Reuben Spellman, husband of former Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman (D-Md.).
Two days before the 1980 general election in which she was re-elected to a fourth term, Gladys Spellman, suffered a severe heart attack that left her in a coma from which she never regained consciousness.
On Feb. 24, 1981, the House declared Spellman’s seat vacant, because she was unable to discharge the duties of her office. It was the first time the House had ever vacated the seat of a Member who had become impaired, according to the Women in Congress Web database created by the Office of the Clerk.
Reuben Spellman was a Democratic candidate in the April 1981 special primary to replace his wife. He finished second out of a field of six candidates, losing to now-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D), a former Maryland state Senate president. Gladys Spellman eventually died on June 19, 1988.
Historical implications aside, whoever wins the Republican nomination appears likely to face Philip Forgit (D), a teacher, Iraq War veteran and former candidate for state delegate, in the general election. Forgit said Monday that Republicans should not just assume that the 1st district is safe territory in a changing Virginia political environment.
It’s a point, he said, that he hopes will be proved with Democratic gains in today’s state legislative elections.
With a strong Democratic showing in today’s election, Forgit said he expects that state and national Democratic party officials will want to get involved in the 1st district special election because a Democratic win would continue to send an important message across the country heading into the 2008 election.
“Based on conversations with the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and the Democratic Party of Virginia I just do not see a situation where they would completely abandon this race and not want to enter,” Forgit said. “There’s just too many factors between the donnybrook on the Republican side and the fact that we have this great election [Tuesday]. … I think the state Senate may very well turn blue [Tuesday] and in a large part due to the races in the 1st district and I don’t think you can ignore that.”
Shaun Kenney, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, acknowledged the importance of the 1st district special in December.
“The DCCC will certainly dump money into this and we expect that,” Kenney said. “But Republicans are not going to let another seat go. Everybody is looking towards 2008. This will be, not only in the national narrative a sign as to whether or not Republicans have turned things around on the Hill, but in the state narrative as to whether or not Virginia is actually turning blue.”