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Elections key to Howell's future
Fall elections could make difference for Howell

 Howell
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Date published: 7/5/2009

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

For House Speaker Bill Howell, the outcome of this year's House of Delegates races could be particularly important, because his job as speaker depends on it.

If Democrats win control of the House, of course, Howell is out as speaker. If Republicans lose seats, he could suffer a crisis of confidence from his own caucus. Howell has in the past taken some flak from some Republican delegates for the loss of House seats.

George Mason University political analyst Stephen Farnsworth thinks Howell has worked to bridge divides within his own caucus.

"It seems to me Howell is doing what he can to keep a pretty fractious caucus together," Farnsworth said. "It's difficult to thread the needle, but it seems to me that's exactly what a speaker with a small majority has to do."

Howell has also increasingly become the public face of, if not all Virginia Republicans, at least House Republicans.

"Particularly in the last year, Howell has done a very good job of presenting himself as the Republican alternative to Governor Kaine," Farnsworth said, citing Howell's public statements on hot topics such as federal stimulus money, unemployment funds and transportation funding.

"It seems to me Howell has been effective in becoming a more visible voice for the party over the last few years, and that's absolutely what the party needs right now, given the series of defeats at the statewide level," Farnsworth said.

Farnsworth thinks Howell has been systematically positioning himself and his caucus as more moderate than they have perhaps been seen as in the past.

Howell's support for the ban on smoking in restaurants is one example; so, Farnsworth said, is his lack of overt support for state Republican Chairman Jeff Frederick when Frederick faced ouster.

"A key moment for the party this year was deciding what to do with Jeff Frederick," Farnsworth said. "Frederick would not be an asset to a Republican Party that's trying to put a different, more moderate face forward to the state electorate. And that's clearly what [gubernatorial candidate] Bob McDonnell wanted and that's what Bill Howell wanted, too."

Population shifts mean that after the 2011 redistricting, districts will be more suburban and urban than rural, Farnsworth said.

"This is of course why people like Howell and McDonnell are working to create a more moderate image of the Republican Party," he said. "If you lose the suburbs you lose Virginia, and Republicans have been losing the suburbs."

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028
Email: cdavis@freelancestar.com