Politics & Policy

Hopes Unmet in Virginia

In the Old Dominion, Republicans win fewer state-senate seats than expected.

Although Virginia’s Democrat-controlled state senate redrew its district lines to protect its incumbents, Republicans had high hopes going into Tuesday’s elections. With its healthy majority in the House of Delegates assured, the GOP was free to focus on winning the two seats needed to form a tie in the senate, which Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling could break in the party’s favor. And winning three additional seats would have given the GOP outright control. Eleven seats, meanwhile, were considered “in play.”

Those in-play races lived up to the hype with some spectacularly close finishes. But in the end, the power of redistricting demonstrated its full force, and Democrats held on in almost all of the places they needed. By late Tuesday night, Virginia appeared to have a 20–20 split — with a possible recount demand upsetting the apple cart.

#ad#Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, was stunned by the efficiency of redistricting, pointing out that in the state-senate races, Democrats had won only 420,000 votes to Republicans’ 661,000, roughly 39 percent of the total. Yet they were likely to win 52.5 percent of the seats.

In plenty of places, GOP candidates ran up huge margins against token or nonexistent Democratic opposition: Eleven Republican state senators were uncontested, while only two Democrats had no GOP opponent. Meanwhile, the Democrats won just about all the close ones they needed: At 10:24 on Election Night, there were nine senate races where the margin was ten percentage points or less — and Democrats led in eight of them.

About an hour after the polls closed but before any significant results had been reported, University of Virginia political-science professor Larry Sabato declared via Twitter, “The only shocker from Virginia will be if the GOP does NOT win the State Senate. Democrats ran a dismal campaign, starting with leaving so many Republicans unopposed.” Wasserman concurred, saying that before the results came in, he gave the Democrats about a one-in-three shot at keeping control of the senate.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch declared that a GOP senate “might be the equivalent of a second term for Gov. Bob McDonnell.” The governor is expected to pursue pension reform, economic development, and K–12 education in particular this upcoming session. With Virginia governors limited to one term, he will not face the voters again, at least not for his current office.

But the fact that the GOP didn’t meet its high hopes left some election observers surmising that McDonnell will need to build consensus before enacting his biggest reforms. “The Virginia State Senate will be 21–19 or 20–20. It will NOT be passing as much controversial legislation as some projected, even if 21–19 R,” Sabato predicted.

Republicans felt great about the odds of former U.S. Army ranger Bryce Reeves against incumbent Democratic state senator Edd Houck. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Reeves led by 86 votes, according to the Virginia Board of Elections. Houck can ask for a recount after the November 28 certification, and with the stakes so high, it is hard to imagine Virginia Democrats not pulling out all the stops to reverse a Reeves victory.

#page#In the Newport News–heavy 1st district, Democrat John Miller held off Republican Mickey Chohany with 51.4 percent of the vote. In the Fairfax County 37th district, incumbent Democrat Dave Marsden appeared likely to hold off GOP challenger Jason Flanary by fewer than 2,000 votes.

The Alexandria, Fairfax, and Prince William district of incumbent Democrat George Barker was a particularly tempting target for Virginia Republicans; if the party could win here, it could boast that they were almost literally winning races in President Obama’s backyard. Republican Miller Baker ran stronger than the typical Republican, but he appeared to be likely to finish with just over 46 percent of the vote.

#ad#The GOP won its share of close votes. In the southern central corner of the state, around Danville, redistricting pitted two incumbent state senators, Republican Bill Stanley and Democrat Roscoe Reynolds, against each other. Stanley led by 588 votes with a lone precinct remaining.

While control of the House of Delegates was assured, one race is interesting for the role President Obama played, as Virginia Republicans ran ads explicitly tying House of Delegates minority leader Ward Armstrong to the president. (“If Ward Armstrong thinks you need Obama, do you really need Ward Armstrong?”)

The Democrat felt compelled to immediately respond with an ad of his own. “Charles Poindexter is comparing me to Barack Obama,” Armstrong said in the ad. “That’s a stretch, Charles. I’m pro-life, pro-gun, and I always put Virginia first. That’s why I opposed the cap-and-trade bill. Sure we need renewable energy, but you don’t do it by raising electric rates.”

Armstrong’s district consists of Patrick County and parts of Carroll and Henry Counties, all carried fairly easily by John McCain in 2008, and part of the city of Martinsville, which Obama carried with nearly 64 percent. But as Election Night drew to a close, Poindexter topped Armstrong, 52 percent to 47 percent.

Perhaps one reason Republican hopes rose so high was the tone of the campaign advertising, in which Republicans were eager to associate themselves with a popular governor, and Democrats tended to shy away from their party’s label.

“You’re not seeing a lot of [Democratic incumbents] campaign as Democrats,” said one Virginia Republican strategist watching the state’s landscape closely. “You’re seeing a lot of them putting themselves next to McDonnell in their commercials and featuring him in their mailers. When Democrats are sending out the positive mailers, they’re not talking about being Democrats. They’re not talking about [former governor Tim] Kaine or [Sen. Jim] Webb, they’re not going out and embracing Democrats.”

(Even the Obama campaign’s message to its supporters in the state avoided using the term “Democrat.” Of course, Brian Moran, chairman of the state party emphasized that the election results would in no way reflect on the president, and one of the embattled Democrats, state senator Phil Puckett, said he would not support Obama’s 2012 reelection bid over the president’s stance on the coal industry. Puckett hung on narrowly.)

“The really interesting part of this is that we’re not seeing this in just the south or southwest parts of the state,” the GOP strategist adds. “This isn’t Danville — we’re talking about Alexandria.” Of course, in northern Virginia, the state Democratic party tried repeatedly to tie local Republican Lincoln Barker to national GOP and conservative figures such as Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh. In light of Barker’s win, perhaps that charge still packed enough punch in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Having Obama atop the ticket in 2012 will be a mixed blessing for Democrats. Obviously, the reelection bid of the first African-American president is likely to bring out African-American voters in droves, but down-ticket Democrats in Virginia won’t have the option of distancing themselves from the reputation of the national party, nor a precisely redrawn map to maximize their advantages.

“That’s going to be hard for say, [Democratic Senate candidate Tim] Kaine to do on two levels,” says the strategist. “First, with all the things he did as DNC chair, it’s hard for him to emphasize being bipartisan. Second, as Obama’s choice for DNC chair, it’s going to be hard for him to ignore or pretend he’s running a separate race.”

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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