Last Saturday, under a cloudless azure sky, Arlington Republicans came out to vote for their new local party chairman and meet candidates trying to win seats on the County Board and in Congress.
THANKS TO the unusually warm March day, with temperatures soaring into the high 70s, the election had the feel of a sun-baked carnival. Children and pets scampered across the lawn of the Lyon Village Community House, as the two contenders for the chairmanship — Jeff Miller and Landey Patton — greeted party activists and delivered their stump speeches.
"I think this weather is a good omen for Arlington Republicans," said Miller, chuckling, as he pointed to the sun.
It certainly augured well for Miller, who defeated Patton in a narrow vote to replace Bill Lockhart as the leader of the county's party. Yet Miller and the rest of the Arlington Republican leadership face a daunting task as they try to return the party to prominence in the county and gain leadership positions.
Democrats currently control all five of the seats on the County Board, four of the five on the School Board and all six of the county's senators and delegates in Richmond.
Last November may have been a nadir for the Arlington branch of the Republicans. The party did not field a candidate to challenge County Board member Jay Fisette or the three Arlington Democratic delegates up for re-election.
Republican Bill Barker received only 24.5 percent of the vote in the School Board race, and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore fared even worse in the county.
In fact, Timothy Kaine bested the previous performances of Gov. Mark R. Warner and presidential candidate John F. Kerry in the county, exceeding the expectations of his own campaign advisers.
"Arlington is a challenging environment for Republicans," Miller said. "It discourages some people who would otherwise be interested in public service."
LOCKHART, the former party chairman, said he discussed the positions on November's ballot with several individuals, but mutually decided that none of them were prepared to challenge the Democratic incumbents.
"Instead of throwing up a sacrificial lamb to run against Jay [Fisette], we took a step back to re-group, organize and prepare candidates" for running in November 2006.
The lack of a history of winning has hampered the Republicans' past recruitment efforts, party activists said. One must invest a tremendous amount of time and money to have a chance at winning an election, and many aspiring young Republicans are too disillusioned with past results in Arlington to make the sacrifice, Barker said in an interview after his School Board defeat last fall.
Grooming future candidates became the hallmark of Lockhart's term in office, and Miller said in an interview after his victory that recruiting will be his highest priority.
The key, Miller said, was to put forward a candidate early in a race to ensure the community has sufficient time to meet them and learn their positions on critical local issues.
"We have offered good candidates in the past, but sometimes they came forward too late in the process, and that impeded their ability to make their case," Miller said.
This campaign season, the Republicans seem to have learned a lesson from last year and are promoting their candidates early and often.
Mike McMenamin is likely to challenge County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, Mike Fazio is planning to run for the vacant School Board seat and three Republicans are vying to topple U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8). There are no races for the Virginia General Assembly in 2006.
Republicans have won countywide office in recent years, so there is certainly precedent that Arlingtonians will cast a ballot for the GOP. Mike Lane was elected to the County Board in a special election in 1999, the same year Dave Foster won a race for School Board. Foster officially ran as an independent, though the Republican party gave him an unsolicited endorsement.
"Arlington is clearly tough terrain for Republicans today, but it is winnable," Foster said. "It would be in the county's interest to have a competitive two-party system."
REPUBLICAN leaders hold up Foster's formula for success as one that future candidates should seek to emulate. Foster lost his first run for School Board, but stayed active in the school community and built up name recognition and support before he ran again.
"If you go out into the community year-round and reach out, people will start thinking of you not as a Republican or Democrat, but as a person who they can trust and [who] deserves to be honored with a position of public service," said Beth Wolffe, a Republican who lost the 2002 School Board election.
In interviews this week, Republican leaders expressed optimism that a confluence of factors could result in the first Republican victory by a new candidate this century.
Many independent voters feel that the County Board is ignoring their concerns and taking their votes for granted, Miller said.
"A lot of citizens are unhappy with the direction of the county... and would appreciate having a second voice on the board," Miller added.
The rising cost of property taxes, combined with irritation over the County Board's decision on lot coverage may spur independents to vote for Republican candidates this fall, party leaders said.
Yet Republicans have made taxes the center of their campaign for the past five years, without any signs of the strategy resonating with voters, Arlington County Democratic Committee Peter Rousselot said.
"They have to come up with candidates that are going to take positions that are attractive to Arlington voters," Rousselot said. "If these issues grabbed the electorates' attention, they would have made more in-roads."
Long-time Republican activist Jim Pebley believes that the county is starting to undergo a subtle, but substantial, demographic shift that will have repercussions in the years to come.
As house prices continue their astronomic rise, with assessments increasing close to 20 percent per year, many families of more moderate means who tend to vote Democratic are leaving the county.
Rousselot counters that there has yet to be any evidence of this change at the polling stations, noting that Kaine did 7 percentage points better with Arlington voters than Warner did.
County Republicans could also be damaged by events occurring on the other side of the Potomac River. Democrats appear poised to pick up seats in the House and Senate.
"If the trend keeps going the way it is now, [the Republicans] may suffer from the feeling of voters that this party is making a mess of things in Washington," Rousselot said.
Yet Lockhart believes that the political axiom that "all politics is local" will dominate this November.
"People care about the local issues," he said. "They care about paying more in property taxes, paying more for each student at schools and they care about whether they are getting their money's worth."