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The Valley’s maverick Republican: Hanger gears up for State Senate re-election run

It hasn’t been that long since the word “maverick” triggered the next drink in the drinking game. John McCain, the original GOP maverick, has since made a hard turn to the far right, judging his political survival to be of more import than his political legacy.

The maverick is a dying breed in the Republican Party. Emmett Hanger is personally aware of the endangerment of the species.

“My answer to the critics is that I’m a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. We’re being taken advantage of not just by big government, but big corporations are a problem as well. With a lot of strong emphasis on the environment. I’m a big proponent of state and national parks and open space. That’s where I find myself right now. I look back to a lot of things that Roosevelt had back in that era as being important being relevant in today’s climate,” said Hanger, a Republican dating back to not all the way to TR, but still to when being a Republican wasn’t exactly cool in Virginia, when he jokes that you could “hold party meetings in a phone booth,” and whose reputation took something of a hit in 2007 with a State Senate primary challenge that nearly ended his political career.

More stories from the December 2010 issue of The New Dominion Magazine are online at

Hanger survived the scare, went on to an easy general-election victory that November, and is on track to making a run at a fifth term in the State Senate in 2011. But the battle scars from ’07 are still visible in talking with him. “Ironically, given some of the political scuttlebutt that I’ve been branded with, my political outlook is very, very conservative,” said Hanger, 62, who was first elected to political office in 1979, half his life ago, literally.

The fuel to the fire that drove the 2007 primary challenge from a Rockbridge County businessman, Scott Sayre, that was backed by several local GOP leaders, was Hanger’s role in the bipartisan tax-reform effort that included a series of tax hikes and tax cuts adopted in 2004 that effectively added a billion dollars to the state government’s bottom line. The firebrands labeled it a billion-dollar tax increase and vowed to purge from the Republican ranks those within the party who had played a role in making it happen.

Hanger, defending his work on tax reform for taking the tax burden off localities and low-income families, narrowly won that primary, beating Sayre by 866 votes, largely on the strength of his much-higher-than-expected voter turnout in Augusta County and Staunton, his home bases, which he won by a combined 1,879 votes. He rolled to a landslide victory over Democrat David Cox in November, but the intra-Republican Party squabbling continued well into 2008, when a struggle for control of the Republican committee in Augusta County ended with the resignation of Kurt Michael, who had played a key role in the dump-Hanger putsch as the chair of the county GOP.

Hanger, who did not attend the party mass meeting that saw the re-election of Michael’s successor in Augusta County, Bill Shirley, earlier this year, is in the rare breed of politicians – with the likes of Mark Warner and John Warner and a few others – who almost don’t need a party machinery because of their wide base of support on both sides of the aisle. Hanger echoes the Warners in the critique from moderates on both sides of the political divide as to what ails American politics in the current day and age.

“When I was first getting politically active, there was just more of a pervasive general spirit of camaraderie. What we see today is a general lack of civility in politics,” Hanger said. “I think we’ve gotten way too partisan in our governance. There’s always a place for partisanship, but in governance, I just think we’re way too engaged in the partisanship. The partisanship that you see taking over governance in Washington has drifted to Richmond. It’s very obvious when our caucuses meet that a lot of our focus is on, How are we going to get ourselves re-elected? How are we going to gain more power in Richmond?”

Whether Sayre or another challenger will emerge to give Hanger a run for the Republican nomination and then in the general election in 2011 is still up in the air at this point. The stronger challenge would seem to be the intraparty one, if it were to come – particularly with the ascendance of the Tea Party, which didn’t even exist four years, on the political scene.

“There’s been a longstanding and continuing brawl within the Republican Party in Virginia over how moderate and how conservative to be. At times you see the moderate wing winning, and at various times you see the conservative wing winning. Perhaps you’ll see the Tea Party give reinforcements to the conservative wing of the Republican Party of Virginia, which has been in ascendancy in the past few years,” said Isaac Wood, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“The Senate is where what moderates there are in Virginia still exist. To the extent to which the Tea Party crowd in Virginia has been energized, it makes sense that if they’re going to go after any moderates who don’t toe the line, as far as they’re concerned, then they’re going to go after Republicans in the Senate,” said Quentin Kidd, the chair of the political-science department at Christopher Newport University.

All signs seem to point to Hanger being there to fight the battle, but it’s hard not to hear a tinge of second thoughts entering into his thinking as he moves forward toward a decision.

“You talk about, will I run again? If I get to the point where I’m spending more time calculating strategies for re-electing myself rather than actually governance and enacting good policy, then I’m going to quit,” Hanger said.

“I’ve been involved, I’ve done it, and I really believe I could walk away from it. I won’t right now, because I believe my experience and the relationships that I’ve built are valuable to this area and to statewide policy. So I want to remain engaged even more than I have in the past. But I don’t like the partisan governance. I hope we can move beyond that and focus on good policy,” Hanger said.

Story by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at