A conservative GOP comeback in Richmond?

With all of the gloom and doom about the future of Republicans and conservatives since November, prognosticators have overlooked one of the most surprising political stories of 2007: the surprising strength of Republican right in Virginia, where all 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot in November.

During the session that ended Wednesday, conservatives and Republicans won a number of significant victories, including passage of a transportation package that did not include statewide tax increases and eminent domain reforms that will make it much harder for the government to condemn private property. Lawmakers passed over Gov. Tim Kaine's veto legislation making people convicted of killing judges or witnesses eligible for capital punishment, and thwarted the governor's effort to enact a ban on smoking in restaurants.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester -- a Republican politician who has long been the Old Dominion's most vociferous advocate of higher taxes -- announced he would not seek re-election as the Senate's Republican high-tax caucus collapsed. Meanwhile, Democrats in the House of Delegates (who in recent years have delighted in taunting conservative Republican delegates for feuding with the Senate's moderate/liberal Republican bloc) unceremoniously dumped Minority Leader Frank Hall in midsession.

The GOP resurgence in Richmond is a story that many pundits missed. On March 28 -- just one week before the Virginia General Assembly concluded so successfully for conservative Republicans -- Politico.com published a political analysis piece titled, "Virginia GOP is Right To Sing the Blues." The article brushed aside the idea that recent Republican statewide losses had anything to do with candidate gaffes or incompetently run campaigns, telling readers that some Republicans were "panicked" over a "demographic surge" of moderates who wanted more spending on things like transportation. "What accounts," author Jennifer Rubin asked in her Politico.com piece, "for the blue tide rolling over what was once a reliable GOP state?"

But judging from what happened during this year's General Assembly session, someone apparently forgot to tell Mr. Kaine and the legislature that Republican Party conservatism is dying in Virginia. This year, the General Assembly became the 36th state to enact eminent domain reform legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which permits government to take property for private gain such as building big-box stores and shopping malls. The governor signed into law H.B. 2954, which says that private property can only be taken for traditional "public uses" -- like roads, schools and post offices -- and tightens the state's definition of blight, which had become so broad that almost any property could be deemed "blighted" and taken away.

Under H.B. 2954 "Local governments can still acquire properties that pose a real threat to public health or safety, but perfectly fine homes and businesses can no longer be seized using vague and subjective criteria like 'deteriorated' and 'dilapidated,' nor can they be seized because they happen to sit within 'blighted' areas," said Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition, a project of the Institute for Justice, which litigated the Kelo case. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison "would surely be proud" that Virginia has enacted legislation ensuring the protection of Virginians' private property rights, Mr. Anderson added. Virginians owe a particular debt of gratitude to lawmakers such as Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, Del. Rob Bell and Del. Johnny Joannou for their tireless efforts to protect property rights and make sure the commonwealth largely undid the damage created by Kelo.

Arguably the most volatile, highly publicized issue before the General Assembly was transportation. Since 2004, when Democratic Gov. Mark Warner and Mr. Chichester pushed a $1.3 billion tax increase through the General Assembly, Democrats have used the transportation issue to keep Republicans off balance. We have some reservations about the package just enacted, but it's far better than the kind of statewide tax increase Messrs. Kaine and Chichester were pushing at the start of the session. Virginia Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie, Attorney General Robert McDonnell and House Speaker Bill Howell did yeoman work in putting together a compromise that will make it much harder to demagogue the issue in the future.


The Washington Times www.washingtontimes.com --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Published April 9, 2007