A Battle Royal for Control of Both Houses
Fairfax May Prove Key as Democrats Seek to Gain, and Republicans to Retain, Majorities
Let the battle begin. With the 2007 legislative session behind them and the seats of all 140 delegates and senators up for election in the fall, Virginia Republicans and Democrats have started slugging it out for control of the General Assembly. Fairfax County could determine the outcome.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine ( D) and his allies hope to make significant inroads in the Republican- controlled House of Delegates and Senate. Democrats need to pick up four seats in the Senate and 11 in the House to regain power, a difficult task in an election that historically draws fewer voters to the polls than an even- year election.
But analysts are predicting a nasty, expensive campaign as Democrats try to build on their recent statewide successes at the same time Republicans are out to prove they still have the upper hand in historically conservative Virginia.
“ It is going to be trench warfare,” said Ray Allen, a longtime Richmond- based Republican strategist.
The hardest- fought contests could be in Fairfax, where three incumbent Republican state senators are gearing up for what could be the fight of their careers.
Democrats are targeting Republican Sens. Ken Cuccinelli II, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis and James K. “ Jay” O’Brien Jr., who represent Fairfax districts where a majority of voters chose Kaine in 2005 and U. S. Sen. James Webb ( D-Va.) last year.
The outcome of those races Nov. 6 could shape state policy and politics for more than a decade because this will be the last state Senate campaign before congressional and legislative redistricting in 2011.
If Republicans keep control of the House and Senate and win back the governor’s mansion in 2009, the party will be able to draw the legislative and congressional district boundaries in a way that helps ensure that GOP incumbents dominate for the next decade.
To stop that from occurring, Kaine is teaming with other party leaders to pour at least $ 1 million into this fall’s races.
Last month, Kaine, Webb, former governor Mark R. Warner, U. S. Reps. James P. Moran Jr. and Robert C. “ Bobby” Scott and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly met over dinner at a posh Washington restaurant to begin plotting a campaign strategy for Democrats.
“ I enjoy the fact the Democratic Party was on the ropes until 2001 and now we are seen as a competitive party, and I want to make sure we stay there,” Kaine said in an interview.
Republican leaders say the party cannot afford to underestimate Kaine, whom they describe as more partisan than recent Democratic governors such as Warner.
“ We will be at a disadvantage financially,” said House Speaker William J. Howell ( R- Stafford). “ The governor can raise a lot of money. Mark Warner has a lot of money. . . . It is tough for us to compete, but these races are run at the grass- roots level, and we have good strength at the grassroots level.”
Republicans hold a 57 to 40 edge over Democrats in the House, with three independents. Howell predicts that Republicans will pick up two House seats, but Democrats say they expect to gain as many as six.
Democrats are starting their campaign, however, amid considerable upheaval. Last month, Democratic delegates ousted their minority leader, Franklin P. Hall ( Richmond), saying they did not think he was effective. Last week, the chief fundraiser for House and Senate Democrats, Ellen Stankwitz, resigned after a dispute with Del. Brian J. Moran ( D- Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic caucus.
Kaine and his fellow Democrats are also discovering that Ed Gillespie, the Virginia Republican Party’s new chairman, is a formidable opponent. Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been using his extensive contacts across the country to help the state party raise money to try to match Kaine’s effort. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and U. S. Sen. John McCain ( Ariz.) have appeared or are scheduled to be at party fundraisers.
Republicans say they have enhanced their standing with Northern Virginia voters because the General Assembly, after years of feuding, recently approved a transportation package that boosts funding for roads and gives local governments more tools to slow growth. The party also plans to highlight its support for legislation to crack down on illegal immigration, expand the death penalty and make it harder for the government to seize private property, GOP strategists said.
Strategist Allen, who specializes in creating direct mail pieces for candidates, said, “ From a guy who make his living helping elect Republicans, we have a very, very strong, compelling message.”
Democrats, who cite President Bush’s low approval ratings and public concern over the war in Iraq, counter that the image of the Republican Party is badly tarnished in Northern Virginia. Democrats also plan to stress Kaine’s and Warner’s records of attracting jobs and investing in transportation, education, health care and the environment.
“ I think there is certainly disillusionment with the Republicans generally,” Connolly said of Fairfax voters. “ I think there is a day of reckoning coming on how they do their jobs and the results they come home with. . . . There has been a steady march by our voters to purge the ideologues and replace them with pragmatists.”
Since 2001, Republicans have lost six House seats and one Senate seat in Northern Virginia. But state legislative races have traditionally been decided on local issues and personalities, a dynamic that could help incumbent Republicans this year.
“ Any Democrat who runs against a Republican incumbent needs to make a case as to why they would do a better job as an individual representing that district,” said Devolites Davis, who is being challenged by former delegate J. Chapman “ Chap” Petersen ( D- Fairfax).
To succeed, Kaine has to find a way to drive up turnout in Northern Virginia by making the election a generic contest about the Republican brand instead of about individual candidates, many independent observers say.
The strategy could be risky because it could also energize Republican voters. Former governor George Allen ( R) had limited success when he tried a similar strat- egy in 1995.
“ Allen beat tons of Democratic incumbents, but he also lost the Republican incumbents who were in Democratic districts,” said Ben Tribbett, a political blogger who specializes in handicapping state legislative races.
But some interest groups are planning to raise the stakes this fall. Three moderate Republican senators are retiring, and conservatives are trying to unseat several others in the June 12 primary. If conservatives gain more influence in the Senate, lawmakers in both parties predict that it could lead to further restrictions on abortion rights.
“ We will focus on the fact we need to get Democrats back in control of the Senate,” said Ann O’Hanlon, executive director of NARAL/ Pro- Choice Virginia. O’Brien, Cuccinelli and Devolites Davis oppose abortion.
Corey A. Stewart ( R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said GOP candidates in Northern Virginia will stay focused on discussing quality- of- life issues, such as traffic and education.
“ For the first time this year, the legislature addressed those things instead of things like putting the Ten Commandments in schools,” Stewart said. “ To that extent, it seems Republicans have finally gotten the message what they need to do to win.”
Fairfax Republican state Sens. Ken Cuccinelli II, left, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis and James K. “Jay” O’Brien Jr. are expecting tough challenges from Democrats.