Familiar with the lines of battle

Election: Republicans tap a Virginia representative who has a handle on the nation's political districts to lead efforts to protect their House majority.

February 25, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ANNANDALE, Va. -- Thomas M. Davis III taps his skull with his index

finger.

It's all up here, he indicates, beneath his tousled light-brown hair. All the names of his 434 House colleagues. The demographics of their districts. How redistricting shifted the boundaries. Whether they went for Bush or Gore. Who's running this time. Who's likely to win.

"I've been coloring election maps for 30 years," the Republican congressman said. "After a while, it's pretty easy."

That wealth of knowledge is being tested in this year's battle for control of Congress.

Davis, once a college intern in the Nixon White House, was elected by his Republican colleagues to head their House campaign committee. His job: protect the party's six-seat majority.

Never in the modern era have Republicans held the House for this long. If they succeed in the November election, they will extend their control over an entire decade.

But history says they'll fail.

"The assumption is that Republicans will lose seats," Davis said. Going back to the mid-1800s, the president's party has lost House seats in every midterm election, save two.

A close student of congressional politics since his teens (he attended high school at the U.S. Capitol, where he was a legislative page), Davis knows that trend. He also thinks he can beat the Democrats and defy expectations. He's done it before.

Among insiders, Davis is regarded as a walking almanac of American politics. Out of 280 million citizens, only a handful have a working knowledge of the nation down to the precinct level. He is one of them.

"He knows the country," confirmed Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, the campaign bible since 1972.

Davis, 53, is a former county executive from the Northern Virginia suburbs. A baseball fan (an aerial photo of Washington's old Griffith Stadium hangs on his office wall here), he could well play a behind-the-scenes role in attracting a major-league ballclub to the area over the next year.

A Christian Scientist who neither drinks nor smokes, he is to the left of most House Republicans on social issues. He favors abortion rights and thinks his party should do more to attract gay voters.

He also broke with the party on its signature economic issue. He voted against a 1995 tax cut that was part of the "Contract with America."

Nor would he fit in well at the button-down, tight-lipped Bush White House, which puts a high premium on sticking to the script.

Davis conducts freewheeling briefings for Washington reporters as part of the GOP effort to shape perceptions about the election. The sessions are seminars on the micro-politics of 435 House districts, which add up to which party will gain a majority for the rest of Bush's term.

"Once in a while I go off message," acknowledged Davis, whose rumpled appearance is about as far from blow-dried as one can get.

He opposed campaign finance overhaul but refused to echo Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert's dire description of that fight as "Armageddon." If, as expected, the reform measure becomes law, it will have a profound effect on campaigns, Davis says. But, he added, "I'm comfortable that we're going to live just fine under it."

Even conservatives who consider him a flawed messenger for the party were impressed by Davis' performance in the last national election. In a year when Republicans lost the popular vote in the presidential race and were trounced in Senate contests, he was nimble enough to prevent a Democratic takeover of the House.

In an interview, Davis said the key to that year's election boiled down to two factors: how often voters went to church and whether they owned a gun.

Using polling data, Davis identified rural districts, in West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, where culturally conservative voters could be peeled from the Democrats over issues such as gun control and abortion. The result: The Republicans picked up enough seats to keep their losses to a minimum.

"We were lucky in 2000" to spot those trends in time, he said.

The peculiar politics of that year's election is one of the reasons Davis contends that Republicans will survive the mid-term jinx.

Because President Bush lacked coattails in the 2000 election, a below-average number of Republicans were elected to the House. As a result, there are fewer shaky Republican freshmen in danger of being swept out of office this fall.

In addition, once-in-a-decade redistricting might yield Republican gains, though fewer than the party had expected. Democrats around the country have outmaneuvered Republicans in a number of key states, and Davis is no longer predicting an eight- to 10-seat advantage as a result of redistricting. Other Republicans say their party will be lucky to net half that many seats by the time all the new lines are drawn.

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