The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Win or lose, Potts is going back to Richmond; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — Unless the polls are off by several orders of magnitude, state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. won’t be the commonwealth’s next governor.

But Potts will be going back to Richmond.

Potts, a Republican whose district includes much of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, has two years left in his fourth term, and has given no indication that he’s going anywhere else, unless its the governor’s mansion.

The Potts campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Potts issued a statement not long after he announced his independent gubernatorial run, declaring his intentions to stay in his seat as a member of the GOP.

“I will remain a Republican and state Senator and I will continue to do what is best for the citizens of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Potts said at the time.

Other politicians have come back from major splits with their party to hold significant influence, said Craig Brians, a political scientist at Virginia Tech.

Getting back in the GOP’s good graces would require Potts to frame his independent run as “having to go outside to say some things, but now the party is listening to me” so Potts and the GOP can go forward together, he said.

“I’m not saying he’s going to do that,” Brians said. “But that’s how he’d have to do it.”

Potts may well continue to wield power once he’s back in Richmond, said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Centreville, one of the men behind the effort to oust Potts from the party earlier this year.

“While the caucus itself may be uncomfortable” with Potts skipping the GOP primary, “I think plenty of them don’t mind at all,” Cuccinelli said. A number will be “perfectly willing” to work with the Winchester senator, he said.

Some in the Senate GOP caucus are reticent to talk about Potts’ future, and others say they haven’t really been thinking about it.

“I haven’t really paid that much attention for the past six months to Senator Potts or his political future,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, whose district is just south of the area represented by Potts.

January will be interesting for Potts, according to Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, especially in regard to Potts’ role as chairman of the Senate Education and Health Committee.

“There could be some move to strip him of his chairmanship,” Sabato said. “Whether or not that will succeed remains to be seen.”

Senate Republicans tried just that during the 2005 veto override session.

The entire Republican membership of the Senate, save Potts himself, signed a letter asking Potts to resign his chairmanship and accede to his removal as head of the committee.

Senate rules hold that any member who changes parties during their term automatically loses their leadership positions on committees. Potts contends that even though he announced an independent candidacy, he was still a Republican.

Republican committees around the state issued resolution after resolution, stating that Potts had abandoned the GOP and he was no longer a recognized member of the state party.

The GOP caucus put the matter to Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, who presides over the body, to settle the matter. But Kaine punted, ruling that dealing with anything but vetoed bills was unconstitutional. A move to override Kaine fell just short on a 27-9 vote.

But there’s a chance that Republican state Sen. Bill Bolling, R-Mechanicsville, will be presiding over the body as lieutenant governor when Potts returns to his desk.

Will 2006 bring a repeat attempt to oust Potts?

“I think that sort of remains to be seen,” Cuccinelli said. “I’m going to talk to my compatriots.”

Regardless of his party affiliation, Potts isn’t going anywhere. He has said repeatedly that he’s not about to resign his post.
But whether he can get anything done remains up in the air.

“If you’re talking about influence, his influence is going to be very limited,” Sabato said.

Having established himself as an outsider and making somewhat of a name for himself statewide — at least with the media — Potts could have an impact on the first two years of the new governor’s administration.

“Gadflies have the most fun in a legislative body,” Sabato said. “He will be freed of any limits of party label. He can say and do whatever he likes. He’s an elected senator until the end of 2007.”

In the long term, Potts’ political future is less than bright.

Potts has said that he would not seek re-election, but at a news conference last week, he said he hadn’t given any thought to a future after his Senate term, short of being governor.

Winning a fifth term would be a truly monumental undertaking, Sabato said. As a Republican from Winchester, Potts is done, he said.

“He certainly could not win a Republican nomination. That would be out of the question,” Sabato said. “You never rule out an incumbent, but he would have a mighty tough row to hoe.”