Column by Chris Graham
Scott Sayre will need to get the backing of grassroots conservatives for his bid to unseat 24th District state senator Emmett Hanger to be successful.
He picked up the endorsement of the cash- and member-rich Virginia Conservative Action PAC today – leading to the obvious question.
Should Sen. Hanger be worried?
“Look at who those primary voters are going to be – we’re in one of the most conservative areas in the state. Certainly he’s vulnerable in this primary – and this endorsment is only going to add to that vulnerability potentially,” James Madison University political-science professor Bob Roberts said.
The VCAP endorsement could indeed go a long way toward providing Sayre, a Buena Vista businessman who announced his candidacy for the Republican Party nomination in the 24th last month, the momentum that he needs to get his upstart bid going on the right track.
Sayre is a political unknown – while Hanger is a three-term incumbent state senator who briefly flirted with a run at the Republican Party nomination for lieutenant governor in 2005 who was first elected to public office way back in 1979.
But Sayre got the nod from VCAP – in the words of Robin DeJarnette, the PAC’s executive director, because Hanger “has completely failed his constituent families on the issues that impact their pocketbooks, lifestyle and economic prosperity.”
“It is time the 24th District had a senator who ardently defends all their interests, including their pocketbooks,” DeJarnette said after making public the VCAP endorsement at an event held on the steps of the Augusta County Courthouse in downtown Staunton.
“It is a betrayal to his constituents and party to continually side with liberal Democrats on tax increases, and it is even worse to claim these are tax reforms that will benefit the district. Voters in the 24th are smarter than that,” DeJarnette said.
Hanger has had a bullseye painted on his back by antitax conservatives dating back to his vote on the 2004 budget reform initiated by former Democratic governor Mark Warner that resulted in an annual tax increase of more than a billion dollars. Hanger was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the reform with his work on a panel studying ways to reform the state tax system that the senator has said should have been done in such a way as to be effectively revenue-neutral.
Sayre, for his part, has taken a vow on revenue neutrality – signing a no-new-tax pledge much like Hanger’s Democratic Party opponent in 2003, Steve Sisson, did himself.
“Tax-neutral doesn’t mean raising taxes – it means taking a look at your spending and figuring out what to do with the money that you already have in the budget,” Sayre said. “We have a budget that has doubled in 10 years. Spending is just out of control – and people are going to have to be held accountable for their spending.
“We’re going to be looking inside the budget for areas of opportunity that we’ve had wasteful spending in – and I think there’s plenty of room inside that budget to make do with what we’ve got,” Sayre said.
“There has to be real leadership – and I think there needs to be change to find that leadership, to find constraint on spending. We can no longer continue to increase the baseline budget in the Commonwealth,” said DeJarnette, who herself pledged to make sure that Sayre sticks by his words if elected.
“I think a perfect example is when Gov. (Doug) Wilder was governor during a time of recession. If there was any time to raise taxes, it would have been then. We were facing a pretty serious recession – but Gov. Wilder at the time had the intelligence to take a closer look at what a tax increase does to the economy and chose even through a recession not to choose the means of raising taxes. It helped our economy and businesses out of that recession – and I think that’s a perfect example of leadership of what to do in tough times,” DeJarnette said.
Hanger challenges the notion that fiscal conservatism means being automatically and unequivocally opposed to looking at what might need to be done to enhance revenues given a certain set of circumstances.
“I welcome this challenge – because it will give me the opportunity to articulate what I stand for again and the work that I’ve been doing and the goals that I have in mind for representing the area. So I welcome this opportunity to have a discussion,” Hanger said.
“When you’re fiscally responsible and fiscally conservative, you have to look at both sides of the ledger. What this is, it’s really an attack on government, when you get right down to it,” Hanger said.
“The interpretation of those that are getting their marching orders from some of these national groups – Americans for Tax Reform and about a half a dozen others – it’s a very narrow focus, and in my opinion, it’s fiscally irresponsible,” Hanger said.
However narrow Hanger feels the focus of VCAP and other antitax groups might be, they do wield influence – and if nothing else, they can spend money like it’s going out of style.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, VCAP had raised nearly $1.7 million between calendar-year 2003 and calendar-year 2006 and had contributed nearly $500,000 to conservative Republican candidates in Virginia during the same period.
“We are rigorously raising money – and we have committed to do what it takes to help these guys win,” DeJarnette said.
“We have over 500,000 identified conservatives through VCAP – and we’ll do our very best to turn those voters out and get them to the polls for Scott,” DeJarnette said.
JMU’s Roberts views the VCAP endorsement through the lenses provided by those numbers – and feels the impact of VCAP’s involvement in the Hanger-Sayre race could be “significant.”
“Potentially they could provide a substantial amount of funding,” Roberts said. “They seem to have the ability to raise money – and therefore they could also run a lot of independent ads if they wish to in addition to making direct contributions to the Sayre campaign. So they could play a role in a number of ways.
“If he can get money from them, or they can run independent ads, they could be a great help to him – because they could turn out the conservative vote,” Roberts said.
“The dilemma that Hanger faces is that clearly conservative Republicans are going to turn out. The question is – what does Hanger do to deal with it?” Roberts said. “He can try to turn out Republicans – which will be difficult for him to do, because real conservatives are angry at him. Or he can theoretically try to get independents to come out for him in the primary.
“Look at who those primary voters are going to be – we’re in one of the most conservative areas in the state. Certainly he’s vulnerable in this primary,” Roberts said.