Frank Atkinson wrote Virginia in the Vanguard with more than a passing reference to anticipated presidential candidacies by Virginians. I think that at this time last year everyone expected there would be a Virginian running for president in 2008. I don’t reckon many thought it would be Jim Gilmore.
For those tuning in late, James S. Gilmore III is a past two term Commonwealth’s Attorney of Henrico County, Attorney General of Virginia, Governor of Virginia, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and chairman of the Gilmore Commission on Terrorism…and now he wants the Republican nomination for President in 2008.
The question to consider is whether Gilmore is the Prince of the Poseur? Is he a legitimate candidate for the nomination or is he some political hack who cannot resist a chance to get back in the game?
At first I scoffed at the Gilmore idea. But upon reflection, I think the Gilmore candidacy is a crossroads moment for the Republican Party. How his candidacy works, and if it works, will address important questions facing the GOP and the nominating process for both parties.
That Gilmore is legitimately in the game at all is the result of some luck. VP Dick Cheney would normally be the heir presumptive, but Cheney is not running in 2008 and first said so about 3 seconds after he was sworn into office in 2001. The absence of a clear front runner opens up the field to about anyone who meets the constitutional requirements. Gilmore does more than that, and offers an interesting combination of assets and liabilities.
Determination in all things
Beyond the resume items, Gilmore is driven and ruthless in pursuit of any goal. He is a blue collar guy who has regularly had to fight the uphill struggle to get where he wants to go-and has made the fight with energy and vigor.
This quality is seen in how he got into law school. As the story is told in the WaPo, Gilmore was accepted at TC Williams at the University of Richmond but wait listed at his first choice, UVa. He enrolled at TCW, began classes, then went up to Charlottesville just the day prior to or the day of classes starting. He sat in the dean’s office all that day in case a spot opened in the incoming class. A spot did come through from someone who chose to go elsewhere. Gilmore was there and ready to go-even though he was not necessarily the next on the wait list-and got the spot. He dropped from TCW, enrolled at and ultimately received his JD from UVa. The man is persistence personified.
The same persistence is seen in his candidacy for AG. When he announced in 1993, there was some scoffing in certain quarters. The idea of a local constitutional office holder running for statewide office without time in the General Assembly was not the norm, especially when the opposition was a veteran member of the House of Delegates. Nonetheless Gilmore won the nomination and went on to victory in November.
Gilmore is a keen politician. His campaign in 1997 was brilliant. His candidate was two time Lt. Governor Don Beyer, and I recall that everyone seemed to think that the blunt, sharp edged Gilmore would have to lose to the friendly, charismatic Beyer. Then Gilmore seized on the No Car Tax issue, Beyer responded badly, and the surge began. Beyer attempted to link Gilmore to extremist positions, which Gilmore deftly avoided. Typical was his approach to abortion. As Schreider writes:
Can both claims be true? Paradoxically, yes. Gilmore won the enthusiastic support of religious-right voters because of his views on abortion. He held his own with other voters in spite of his views on abortion. He did it with a clever ploy: he accepted reality.
Gilmore acknowledged that the Supreme Court has held abortion to be legal under the Constitution, and, as governor, he could not change that. By accepting the status quo, he defused concerns that he might threaten abortion rights. Almost half of those who voted for Gilmore said they wanted abortion kept legal. They voted for him for other reasons, like his opposition to Virginia’s highly unpopular personal property tax on automobiles, which Gilmore made the core issue in his campaign.
Once he became governor, he not only moved to implement his promised elemination of the car tax he also moved to solidify GOP control of the House of Delegates. While the large majority did not occur until after the 2000 census/redistricting, he worked with Delegate Vance Wilkins to move the GOP into majority status. He identified likely GOP districts held by long term democratic incumbents, then offered them positions on state boards or in his cabinet. When these Democrats were succeeded by Republicans, the GOP moved into majority status in the Senate and with the votes of conservative independents moved into the majority in the House.
Ideologically, Gilmore is a GOP dream guy. He is a hard core tax cutter. He was a law and order prosecutor, and no doubt would be a as harsh in pursuit of those seeking to hurt the USA as he was chasing the bad guys in Henrico County. He is pro-life, but said as governor he would not seek to undermine Roe v. Wade.
As for intagibles, Gilmore is not scared by long odds. He will pursue the GOP nomination with the same single minded drive he followed to win the AG nomination in 1993. As Garrett Epps writes:
Del. Steve Agee, a General Assembly veteran, was the party establishment’s choice; Gilmore fought for the nomination as an outsider. Bryan Slater, his campaign manager, recalls that he and Gilmore would get into the candidate’s car after work each day and drive into the hinterland – anywhere within three hours’ drive of Richmond where two Republicans were meeting. “The strategy was, Go everywhere and do everything,” says Slater, now secretary of administration in Gilmore’s Cabinet. The two men would eat a hasty dinner (Gilmore usually chose Pizza Hut), then Slater would drive while the candidate reviewed his speech. Often they would arrive at a rural Republican meeting and have to beg for two minutes on the podium. Gilmore would sit patiently through the meeting, briefly introduce himself, and then drive home again.
The strategy worked. Once nominated, Gilmore began another underdog race. By Virginia tradition, the attorney general comes from the legislature; the post of Virginia attorney general had traditionally been viewed as primarily a civil lawyer’s job. Gilmore changed the paradigm. He ran for top cop and law-enforcer – in effect, recasting the job as commonwealth’s attorney of the entire state.
Sounds like a guy who is ready to sit in Kaffee Klatches from Iowa to New Hampshire to retail win the nod, eh?
Gilmore is also the one person who comes into the race on the GOP side without nettlesome personal issues. He has been married to his wife Roxanne since 1977-there is no divorce or personal innuendo to distract voters. He is a born and bred Methodist-no exotic religious questions to distract, either. As noted, straight GOP orthodoxy-no burrs to nick him there.
For a fuller analysis of Gilmore’s strengths, and better written than I could hope to do, I refer you to this analysis by James Atticus Bowden.
On the Other Hand…
Jim Gilmore comes from a blue collar, middle class background. He has fought for all that has come to him, and does not shy away from a fight. This unwillingness to back down has not always served him well.
His desire for GOP control and purity in the General Assembly led to an attempt to purge moderate Richmond Delegate Panny Rhodes in 1999. A more detailed account can be found here, but in essence Gilmore, AG Mark Earley, Congressman Tom Bliley, and a truckload of GOP big dogs lined up against Rhodes, while John Warner lined up with her. Crossover votes led to her victory in a primary. Two years later Gilmore, ever on themove, signed a 2001 redistricting plan that effectively eliminated Rhodes from the House of Delegates.
Gilmore earned a wide variety of marks for his handling of the Hugh Finn matter. As described here, Finn:
a popular, 44-year-old news anchorperson in Louisville, Ky., ruptured his aorta in 1995 in a traffic accident. The resulting anoxic damage to his brain left him, like Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan, irreversibly comatose. Though he was incapable of any conscious activity, a feeding tube inserted through his abdomen supplied the nutrition and fluids necessary to sustain life.
This much is fact.
From here on, it was a precursor to the Terry Schiavo case. Finn was being cared for at Annaburg Manor in Manassas. In 1999 his wife, on advice from physicians that Finn was in a persistent vegetative state, decided to disconnect the tubes. This led a wide range of court actions trying to keep the tubes in place. One of these actions was filed by Gilmore with the Virginia Supreme Court to override the Virginia Circuit Court decision allowing the tubes to be pulled:
Gilmore [brought] bringing suit against Michele Finn under an obscure statute giving the governor authority to represent Virginia residents in need of protection. His suit charged that terminating life support was euthanasia. A mere 21/2 hours after receiving Gilmore’s appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected this claim, ruling that disconnecting feeding tubes “merely permits the natural process of dying and is not mercy killing or euthanasia.” (Epps WaPo article, page 4)
Some saw this as an unnecessary state intrusion in a private matter, some saw it as a payoff to the religious right, and others saw it as a principled position….a determined move by a principled man with mixed perceptions as a result. A google search on the principal players will yield a wide range of articles on the matter.
Then there is the matter of state finances…
Gilmore was able to get a 70% elimination of the Car Tax, in great part because of huge surpluses created by the rapidly growth of the IT sector in the “Silicon Dominion”. Then came 9/11, exacerbating a business slowdown that began at the end of the Clinton administration. Gilmore’s successor Mark Warner persuaded the GOP majority General Assembly to approve a tax increase in 2005 to preserve the state AAA bond rating and bring in “needed” revenue. When the dust had settled, it seems that the tax increase was not needed and that adequate revenue was already set to come in.
So his record is muddied. Some will tell you as a matter of metaphysical certainty that based on revenue figures available in early 2005 that a tax increase was needed, and others will tell you with equal certainty that not only was a tax increase not needed but the state has adequate revenue to 100% repeal the car tax.
His most recent in-party credentials are less than stellar. He was appointed RNC chair in recognition of his party building efforts and also for bringing Virginia in for Bush in a 2000 primary that helped put the McCain candidacy in the ground. Yet in his single election cycle as chairman the GOP lost the governorships in New Jersey and in Virginia, with Gilmore’s AG Mark Earley losing to Mark Warner. These results, as well as a reported inability to work with Karl Rove, ended his time in that position.
So, an impressive collection of strengths and weaknesses-and sometimes where an action falls depends completely on your personal or ideological perspective. My perspective is that Jim Gilmore knows he is right. I have sometimes wished I was as sure of anything as Jim Gilmore appears to be of everything. Maybe that is the result of his life’s path, maybe that is how you have to be to do what he has done…but sometimes that certainty has played him false.
Can He Do It?
Our friends at Virginia Virtucon a solid analysis of how Gilmore can win. Essentially they suggest he takes advantage of the fragmented GOP field, ride his credentials as a true Reagan conservative with no character issues, and follow an insurgent campaign of the Howard Dean type. If he does this, he has a chance to emerge as the champion of the conservative side of the GOP field and goes into a head-to-head with one of the moderate conservatives, which would then follow my Champions Theory of Nominations.
Gilmore may be hindered by continued efforts to front end load the nominating process…an insurgent candidacy like his needs time to let it breath and grow, not unlike Jimmy Carter in 1976-perhaps the ultimate insurgent campaign. However larger and less conservative states like California are trying to move to an earlier position in the nominating calendar. Left unchecked this development will undermine the ability of a lesser known candidate to gain momentum through a series of primary victories. It will also mean there is a need to get in big money early, which has to militate in favor of better known candidates with larger organizations.
The purity of Gilmore’s positions creates an interesting questions for the GOP:
(A) Will his positions be overwhelmed by continued questions about Iraq? Gilmore has no federal experience. If Iraq and foreign policy is still the focus issue in 2008, then a governor with no federal experience could have problems.
(B) Even if Iraq is not the major issue, what kind of electoral map could Gilmore construct as the nominee? The GOP has not scored a big electoral win since 1988. Clinton did not get majorities in either 1992 or 1996, but he scored large electoral victories that gave an appearance of wide spread support. Bush won narrow electoral wins in both 2000 and 2004, and did not win the popular vote in 2000. I suggest this is in no small part based in campaigns founded on the use of wedge issues that allow little or no room for movement-these are yes or no issues.
The big three (McCain, Giuliani, Romney) will argue they have the stuff to expand beyond the states Bush won in 2004, creating a cushion. I doubt that Gilmore can reasonably make that claim. His pure Reagan Conservatism can likely hold the Bush base, but with the 2006 whomping still fresh in people’s minds-as well as the fact that he would be running to succeed a man who has tried to talk like Reagan but has on so many fronts not emulated him-I do not know how this plays with general election voters, and how that consideration will play with primary voters.
(C) What does the GOP want in their nominee? Is the prime factor someone who can win, or someone who is ideologically pure? The current administration and the shenanigans on Capitol Hill have left the GOP without a real sense of what it is…and that sense of self and purpose must be regained. Is this best done by running a candidate with good but not perfect ideology and winning, or losing with someone who is ideologically pure and running a greater risk of losing?
It gets down to this-the Gilmore candidacy is no panacea. It is a legitimate effort, based in a solid record of achievement and ideology. His is not a perfect record, and he lacks that crowning, closing item that would burnish his record to a high sheen (electing a GOP successor, serving in a high federal position, emerging as the clear national leader of some school of thought or movement). Maybe that is why folks reacted differently to the idea of a Mark Warner effort than they have to Gilmore.
Nonetheless, Jim Gilmore is a man who has never lost an election. He knows how to build an organization, he is unwilling to concede defeat, and will not back away from a fight. Men with lesser abilities have won presidential nominations. He has yet to be The Prince, but he is certainly not a Poseur.
Ignore or belittle him and his candidacy at your peril.