Davis Builds Up ’08 Infrastructure

Posted July 11, 2007 at 6:33pm

It’s widely known that Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) is expected to be first out of the gate if Sen. John Warner (R) announces his retirement later this year.

But more details of his behind-the-scenes preparation — and the extent to which Davis will have a campaign operation at the ready if and when the Senate seat opens up — are emerging.

Gearing up for a possible statewide run, Davis has hired veteran GOP operative Chris LaCivita, a top strategist for former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). LaCivita is now on the payroll of Davis’ leadership political action committee, Federal Victory Fund.

The Congressman also has reserved several Web site domain names — including www.TomDavis2008.com and www.TomDavisForSenate.com — as part of his preparation. The names were reserved in November by a consulting firm that works for Davis.

Davis is one of many interested parties waiting to hear whether Warner will seek a sixth term next year, though recent indications have observers believing the 80-year-old Senator is more likely to retire. Warner has said he will make his plans known in September.

Some GOP insiders have speculated that Warner is waiting to announce his decision in an effort to give Davis, who many consider to be his preferred candidate, a leg up in the contest. The Congressman’s allies deny he has any such insider information and that all of the steps he has taken are in preparation for a race that is a widely acknowledged possibility.

“You don’t get where Tom’s gotten without thinking ahead,” said one senior Davis adviser. “It’s no secret that if Sen. Warner decides to step down Tom will run, so he’s preparing for that possibility. And locking down domain names and bringing on staff is part of that preparation.”

LaCivita served as political director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee when Allen was chairman, but is better known for his work with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a pro-Bush 527 group, during the 2004 presidential election.

Also expected to be heavily involved in the effort is John Hishta, a longtime Davis operative who now is managing director of Mercury Public Affairs’ Washington, D.C., office.

Hishta served as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee during Davis’ tenure as chairman. He managed Davis’ first race for Congress in 1994 and also managed Warner’s difficult 1996 re-election campaign against Democrat Mark Warner, who lost but later became governor.

If John Warner decides to retire in 2008, Senate Democrats’ recruitment hopes rest squarely with Mark Warner — who left the governor’s mansion in early 2006 with record-high approval ratings.

It remains to seen if Davis will bring other strategists on board. GOP pollster John McLaughlin has long been Davis’ numbers guru and a member of his inner circle.

In many ways Davis — a political animal by nature who still consumes a steady diet of polling data years after his tenure at the NRCC ended — serves as his own top strategist and consultant.

Davis’ second-quarter fundraising totals will be made public this weekend, with expectations that he continued raising money at a rapid pace. He raised $624,000 in the first quarter of the year and had $833,000 on hand at the end of March.

Ultimately, however, some conservatives argue Davis’ structural and financial preparations may not matter.

Davis, who is politically moderate and from Northern Virginia, is considered unlikely to escape a nomination challenge from the ideological right.

Case in point, the Traditional Values Council sent out a press release Wednesday with this blistering headline: “Waxman-Davis Bill Opens Door to Requiring Protections For Wide Range of Bizarre Sexual Acts.”

Former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R), who is currently running for president, is the candidate many Virginia conservatives hope will jump in the race if Warner retires.

Republican Virginia Reps. Eric Cantor and Bob Goodlatte also are mentioned as possibilities.

In Virginia, nominees are chosen either by party primary or convention — a decision that is the incumbent’s to make. In cases where there is no incumbent, the choice falls to the state party’s central committee.

Conventional wisdom holds that Davis likely would fare much better in a primary scenario than at a convention, which would be dominated by social conservatives.

“If it’s a convention, I think that Davis is in big trouble,” said one GOP consultant who is closely aligned with conservatives. “His money advantage is not all that useful at a convention.”

Republicans chose social conservative Oliver North as their nominee at a 1994 convention over a more moderate candidate. North went on to lose the general election to incumbent Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.).

Davis’ base in vote-rich Northern Virginia would help him in a primary, though he still faces hurdles, the consultant said, even if he is clearly already working behind the scenes now to help marginalize them.

“He goes into a primary with significant structural disadvantages, but he has taken many steps already to help him overcome those disadvantages,” the consultant said.