Candidates who challenge incumbent members of their own party in primary elections aren’t supposed to win. Just ask Pat Toomey. But last week in Virginia, voters gave 26-year-old Republican Chris Craddock a convincing victory over Delegate Gary Reese.
”It sends a message to Richmond that voters don’t want all their money going to the government,” says Craddock.
Craddock was one of six Republicans who launched upstart bids against members of their own party for supporting Democratic governor Mark Warner’s $1.3 billion tax hike last year. He was the only winner among them–a result that compelled Michael D. Shear of the Washington Post to write an obituary for the anti-tax movement in Virginia. “They pretty much lost,” he said in an online forum on Wednesday, as if one out of six incumbents failing to secure their party’s nomination was a routine occurrence anywhere. (Anti-tax candidates also prevailed in the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.) The anti-tax movement adds these to an earlier success, when James Dillard, a tax-supporting incumbent of 30 years, dropped out of the race when faced with primary opposition from Michael Golden, an avowed anti-tax candidate who also won his primary last week.
“We won two races and ran good races against several others,” said Phil Rodokanakis of the Virginia Club for Growth. “We never said we’d defeat them the first time around; we’ll keep challenging them until we win and they change their ways.”
Chris Craddock is the star of the group. In a northern Virginia teeming with émigrés, Craddock is a long-term resident–he was born in Richmond, but moved to Fairfax when he was two years old. He attended local schools and earned a degree in economics at George Mason University while working in his family’s landscaping business. There he met his wife, Katherine. After graduation, he and his wife took jobs with Young Life, a non-denominational Christian ministry that mentors troubled kids. They soon built a large local youth ministry. “We have hundreds of kids in out house every week for breakfasts, for prayer meetings, just to hang out,” he says. Craddock also serves as director of student ministries at a local evangelical church. Amid all this, he’s pursuing a master’s degree in theology from Reformed Theological Seminary.
It was the community, and an awareness of its interests, that lead Craddock to this election, his first foray into politics. “A representative should try to represent the values that his community holds dear,” he says. Residents of his district, which includes parts of fast-growing Fairfax and Loudon Counties, should be represented by “someone who fights to keep out taxes low and fights to promote traditional values.” Craddock believes that Reese’s support of Warner’s tax hike, along with his stances on family-values issues, such as his opposition to a bill ending the state practice of providing family=planning information along with marriage licenses, made him a poor fit for the district.
Craddock found a ready base of support for his campaign in his network of local friends and acquaintances. Years of living in the area, coaching high-school soccer, and serving as a youth minister–”just doing things in the community”–provided him not only experience in dealing with people but a “couple hundred volunteers.” Says Craddock: “The community service that my wife and I do just translated very well into campaigning.”
Even with these advantages, Craddock didn’t know everyone in the district. Last August, he began knocking on doors to meet as many of them as he could. For nine months, he went canvassing almost every afternoon. “I’ve probably knocked on nine or ten thousand doors,” he says. “There were some closed doors, but the people have been extremely receptive, talking about the things that they care about.” The Virginia Club for Growth’s Rodokanakis credits Craddock’s “hard, grassroots work” for his victory. “It’s about getting to know people face-to-face, and Chris did that,” he says.
Craddock won 65 percent of the primary vote, against a better-funded incumbent. How does Craddock think he won? “Hard work” he says, but mainly because “my wife and my friends are the best people in the world–people that believed in me and made this possible.”
Craddock advances into a general election against Democrat Chuck Caputo. He will campaign to achieve “lower taxes, more money back to Northern Virginia to solve our transportation problems, and traditional values.” The district is full of Republicans. Democrats didn’t even field a candidate in 2003.
Rodokanakis says that Craddock’s victory sends a clear message to incumbent Republicans who are thinking about supporting tax increases: “Don’t do this again or we’ll make it very expensive for you.”
Craddock, for his part, says he’ll be knocking on doors again–just as soon as he gets “a few days of sleep.”
–Anthony Paletta is the editor of the Carrollton Record at Johns Hopkins University and a Collegiate Network intern for NR in Washington, D.C.