News & Politics

Senator Tom Davis?

He’ll run one more time for the House—then he has his eye on John Warner’s Senate seat in 2008. But can DC’s best friend in Congress get his party’s nod?

For many years, being described as a Washingtonian has been a sure-fire way to blow a political career in Virginia or Maryland. Winning has required deriding most everyone inside the Beltway.

Baltimore’s stranglehold on Maryland politics may not loosen this year, but Virginia could be on its way to electing a United States senator who wears the Washingtonian label as a badge of honor.

Democrat Tim Kaine won election as Virginia’s governor in November by running strongly in Northern Virginia. And while Kaine’s success might reflect the popularity of outgoing Democratic governor Mark Warner, it bears noting that Northern Virginia was one of a handful of places in the country where John Kerry got a larger share of the vote in 2004 than Al Gore did in 2000.

Despite Democratic inroads in Northern Virginia, there’s been one constant: Republican Tom Davis has been a fixture on the political scene since his election to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 1979.

Davis is gearing up for his seventh—and likely his last—bid for the US House, to which he was first elected in 1994. After that, he has one more political mountain to climb: election to the US Senate. With Republican George Allen running for reelection this cycle, Davis’s shot will likely come in 2008, when Republican John Warner is up for reelection.

Warner turns 80 before then, and there’s plenty of speculation as to his retirement. In fact, speculation about it was sparked by a rumor involving Davis.

Late last year House Republicans were fretting that Davis was going to quit his House seat and take over the reins of the National Federation of Independent Business—the big trade association representing small businesses. Davis has acknowledged that he was “headhunted” to run the organization and had a million reasons to say yes—if reasons are dollars. The resignation of Davis, a centrist Republican, essentially would have handed the Democrats a House seat.

Davis had what he describes as two “very important” conversations that led him to decide to seek reelection in 2006 and prepare for a US Senate bid in 2008. The first was with House speaker Dennis Hastert, who no doubt reminded Davis how hard it would be to hold his Northern Virginia district in the GOP and what a shame it would be if he helped do what he spent four years as head of the House Republican campaign committee preventing—let Democrats take back the House.

The second conversation probably was even more effective in convincing Davis to pass up a $1-million salary—a talk with John Warner. In an interview, Davis would not reveal details of the conversation other than to say that it was “important” in his decision-making. Warner is “entitled to make the decision” about seeking reelection in 2008, Davis said, then added, “I have to be prepared.”

Tom Davis has been preparing his whole life for this moment. In his congressional office Davis points out photos of him with legendary Republican senators Everett Dirksen and Barry Goldwater.

He has immersed himself in politics since childhood. Despite the doubts his moderate stands raise among members of his own party, he’s been a Republican since birth or close to it. His earliest political memories are of arguing on behalf of Republican presidents during mock elections at his Arlington elementary school.

Born in North Dakota, Davis moved to Northern Virginia when he was four; except for college—he went to Amherst in Massachusetts—and law school at the University of Virginia, he has lived here ever since.

Just four years out of law school, Davis embarked on his first campaign: a seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. His first victory was an upset, at least as Davis remembers it:

“I won a Democratic-held seat in the Democratic bastion of the county [Baileys Crossroads/Seven Cor­ners]. I won with 63 percent. . . . I ran it like a presidential race. I was out there sipping the first Slurpee in the morning at the 7-Eleven, I worked the bus stops, I rang the doorbells, I did the grocery stores, attended every civic-association meeting.. . . I built an organization that kicked butt. The Democrats didn’t know they were in trouble until the month before the election—they’d go around to put their yard signs, and the Democratic yards they targeted had Davis signs in them.”

Thus began a streak of ten straight election victories: three for the seat on the Fair­fax board, one for county board chair, and six for Congress. An 11th straight victory—reelection to his House seat—is almost certain this year. Davis says the Democrats, realizing he’s unbeatable, have only “midgets” running against him.

Since his first campaign for a seat on the Fairfax board, Davis has had only one tough fight—in ’94, when he challenged then-congresswoman Leslie Byrne, a Dem­o­crat. Nationally, 1994 was a great year to be a Republican. But in Virginia, one of the great intraparty feuds of all time was taking place.

Oliver North was the GOP nominee for the US Senate, but the state’s senior senator, John Warner, refused to endorse North and urged support for Marshall Coleman to run as an independent. The split tore the GOP apart. Davis, the biggest Republican in Fairfax, the state’s most important county, faced a dilemma. He calls John Warner “a senator’s senator.” But he thought it was important to support the Republican ticket.

“If North hadn’t been on the ticket,” Davis says, his own election “would have been a wipeout. The problem is, they came out to vote against Oliver North, and that just killed me. When North came to Fairfax, you couldn’t find me with a search warrant.” Davis won, but by a relatively narrow 53–45 margin.

That decision to not buck the party could turn out to be the most important decision of Davis’s career. As any student of Virginia politics will note, Davis’s biggest hurdle in a Senate race would be the Republican primary. Says University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato, “He’ll need two conservative opponents in a primary to win a plurality victory. The good news for Davis: There is no runoff in Virginia anymore, so 35 percent in a three-way race potentially could do it, and I’d see Davis easily over 40 percent with strong support in Northern Virginia.”

Chris LaCivita, one of the strategic brains behind the electoral success of George Allen, believes Davis has a “50–50 chance” of winning a statewide Republican primary. And while 50–50 may sound pessimistic, LaCivita is actually more upbeat, noting that Davis has moved his chances up to 50–50 because he has been such a good donor to Republicans up and down the Virginia ballot.

Davis probably wouldn’t argue with either prognostication. Asked if he is electable statewide, Davis says, “Absolutely.” When the question is rephrased to “electable in a Republican primary,” Davis responds, “That’s a different answer.”

Adds Davis, a shrewd enough analyst that he could challenge Sabato, Charlie Cook, and Stuart Rothenberg in the political-handicapping arena: “I’m absolutely electable statewide. In fact, once I get the nomination, I’m probably not touchable statewide.”

For all Davis’s confidence, winning the general election wouldn’t be a breeze. The Democrats will likely field a strong candidate. Either of the two people running for Allen’s senate seat in 2006—former Navy secretary Jim Webb and telecommunications businessman Harris Miller—could run in 2008. If Mark Warner decides not to run for president, he would be every Democrat’s first choice for the Senate in 2008. Former congressman L.F. Payne or current congressman Rick Boucher would also be formidable because of their rural Virginia ties.

But Davis’s main hurdle remains the Republican primary. And he’s cautiously confident about that. “I can win a nomination,” he says. “The Republicans for years seemed to think [if] we hold down our losses in Northern Virginia, we win everything else.” The Kilgore loss in November, he says, “just showed you can’t do that.”

Essentially, Davis is banking on the notion that demographic change in Virginia has finally given him his shot without forcing him to move too far to the right.

The Senate-primary opponent Davis is preparing for is former governor Jim Gil­more. “I think in some ways, he’d rather be governor,” Davis says. “But I think he’ll take the first available opening.”

Gilmore has never shown ambition for the Senate—he has expressed interest in a new bid for governor in 2009—but another GOP strategist in Virginia agrees that should Warner decide to retire, the opportunity could be too good for Gilmore to pass up.

Davis already has his anti-Gilmore campaign down. Referring to Gilmore’s gubernatorial victory on the issue of the Virginia car tax, Davis calls him a “one-trick pony.. . . Car tax is still with us. It costs over two times what he said it was going to cost.”

While Jim Gilmore or any other Senate-primary opponent is apt to tag Davis as “pro-tax,” one label that won’t stick is RINO—Republican in Name Only.

Despite representing what is now a swing district that leans Democratic, Davis has never acted ashamed of being a Republican. His reputation as a party stalwart—from backing the North-led ticket in ’94 to his work to preserve the Republican majority in Congress—may keep key Republican and conservative activists from torpedoing him.

Still, Davis will have troublesome issues to defend himself on when he begins campaigning downstate—especially his work on behalf of the District of Columbia.

When Davis was elected to Congress in 1994, the Republicans were just getting control of the House and needed a new chair of the DC subcommittee, a post Davis accepted. Within three months, he found himself writing the DC Financial Control Board Act, which indirectly brought DC its current mayor, Anthony Williams.

While making DC work plays well in Northern Virginia—it has helped him become perhaps the dominant politician in the region—it doesn’t endear Davis to rural Republicans. His support of DC initiatives could be a burden for him outside the 703 area code.

But Davis is unapologetic about this work. He has nothing but positive things to say about DC, even while describing a city in “dire straits.” Among the first things he hopes to do if elected to the Senate is help get DC a vote in the US House. He’s not a believer in statehood or retrocession to either Maryland or Virginia, but he is in favor of more self-government for DC.

“That means for issues like domestic partners and all the social stuff, we just need to step back, let the city make its own mistakes,” he says. Congress should step in, he believes, only when the city is doing something that “impairs the operations of government.”

Like John McCain—whom Davis calls his second choice for president in 2008, behind George Allen—Davis is not shy when dealing with the media. Overseeing DC affairs has helped raise Davis’s local profile. More recently, his chairmanship of the House Committe on Government Reform has allowed him to take the lead on high-profile congressional probes into the use of steroids in baseball and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Davis’s political success has come with some personal sacrifice: the end of his first marriage. “I’ve been successful in just about anything I’ve done in life—academically, politically, and in business”—but his worst failure, he says, was the breakup of his marriage to Peggy, a physician and the mother of his three children. “It was awful.”

Davis puts much of the blame for the breakup on his job: “It’s very tough on the family. It’s miserable on a family—absolutely miserable.

“The worst part about this job is you’re not in control. . . . You’re sitting here at night. You’re going home at 6, then it’s going to be 7, then it’s 8, and some guy has a tantrum on the [House] floor, and you’re there, and the dinner party is wiped out.”

Davis recalls arriving home “one night on time. I said, ‘Why are you headed to the movies?’ And she responds, ‘I can’t count on you for anything.’

“They just had to plan their life around me,” Davis says. “I don’t blame them for that.

“I still cry about it.”

Davis is married again, this time to someone likely to be more understanding of the political grind. In 2004 he wed Jeannemarie Devolites, now a Republican state senator from Fairfax County. The new union brings its own challenges. Devolites has four children from a previous marriage—three are grown, and one attends James Madison High School with Davis’s youngest daughter. Devolites’s second-eldest daughter just finished a 4½-year sentence in federal prison for armed robbery and is moving in with Tom and Jeannemarie as she tries to get her life back together.

Davis believes experiences like this one with his stepdaughter and with his own father—an alcoholic who was in and out of jail during Davis’s childhood—help him connect with the concerns of voters. He notes that many successful politicians have survived family difficulties, notably Bill Clinton. Clinton, Davis says, “overcame a lot to get where he was. It gave him a gift to connect with everyone in the room, the janitor to the CEO.”

Davis is one of just five House members whose faith is Christian Science. If he gets elected to the Senate, he’ll be only the fourth Christian Scientist to serve in that body. He says he keeps with the basic tenets of the religion, doesn’t drink or smoke, goes to church regularly, and reads the lessons. He doesn’t completely avoid medical treatment—he admits getting a checkup every year—but he doesn’t “go running to the medicine cabinet” at the first sign of a runny nose.

Tom Davis is in an up-or-out frame of mind. There’s not much more he wants to get done in the House. He came very close to calling it a political career last year when the offer from the National Federation of Independent Business presented the opportunity both to make a lot of money and to keep his finger in politics. The prospect of running for the Senate is the main thing that kept him from taking that job.

Serving in the Senate would be a career topper for Davis—it was the ambition that got him interested in politics to begin with. If he can’t get there in 2008, it probably means he can’t get elected as a Republican in Virginia—which makes a job like the NFIB position even more appealing. Plus, both his wife and his son, Carlton, are politically active and have ambitions of their own; some observers believe his wife could be a statewide candidate in 2009. If Davis doesn’t win the Senate seat in 2008, it’s easy to imagine him enjoying the role of campaign strategist for either or both.

But considering his track record, his ambition, and his ability to outprepare and outwork his opponents, odds are good that the area will have a US senator who proudly calls himself a Washingtonian.

Chuck Todd, editor in chief of the online political publication the Hotline, wrote about Senator George Allen in the August 2005 Washingtonian.