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Washington Matters

A Big Blow to House GOP

The decision by Rep. Tom Davis to hang it up after this term is a particularly brutal loss for House Republicans. Davis's retirement makes it tougher for them to limit losses by putting yet another safe seat into serious jeopardy and costs the party one of the few remaining moderates and pragmatic legislators comfortable reaching across the aisle. Worst of all, perhaps, Republicans are losing one of their sharpest tacticians and most able party-builders.

Davis led House GOP re-election efforts in the late 1990s and helped them strengthen their grip on the House during his tenure. He helped turn his home state of Virginia into a solid red state and recaptured control of the state legislature, but saw the GOP lose that grip in recent years by becoming more ideologically narrow. He built strong relationships with the business community -- especially the high-tech industry, which had strong ties to the Democrats -- by getting candidates to play down divisive social issues and stress pro-growth and pro-business policies instead.

Davis had a near freakish knowledge and understanding of the demographic and ideological make-up of virtually all of the 435 House districts and loved to floor audiences by asking them to give him a zip code so he could reel off its statistical characteristics. Davis used to annoy and discomfort Hill reporters -- who pride themselves on keeping their political and ideological preferences private -- by asking where they went to high school. Once he knew, Davis almost unerringly could describe their political leanings, although few acknowledged how close he came. These weren't mere parlor tricks. Davis used this ability to carefully frame issues and find and recruit candidates who were such near-perfect fits with the temperaments of voters that he put swing seats and even some Democratic-leaning districts into play.