Local Commentary

Senator Whipple

Last week’s primaries changed the political landscape and raised the stakes in the November elections for the Senate of Virginia.

Two incumbent moderate Republican Senators lost their primaries to right-wing challengers. In both cases the incumbents were better-funded but the challengers got their supporters to the polls.

Senator Marty Williams of Newport News lost to Tricia Stall, a woman who has made startling claims on education, most notably commenting that "Public education today is totally government controlled to socially engineer our society into dumbed down citizenry who will accept and tolerate whatever the government tells them to do.” Although this district generally votes Republican, her extreme views may be too much for moderates and independents.

Senator Brandon Bell of Roanoke County was also defeated by a more conservative challenger. He lost the primary by only 75 votes—another reminder of how important it is to vote. Senator Bell was the lead sponsor of a bill in the 2007 Session to ban smoking in most public places. Although the bill failed, many conservatives apparently believed it expanded the role of government too much.

Republican Majority Leader, Walter Stosch of Henrico, barely squeaked through his primary challenge in spite of raising nearly a million dollars for the primary. He won by less than one percent of the vote.

The right wing of the Republican Party was out in force on primary day, demonstrating the deep divide within the party for all to see. The Republicans actually contested more of their own officeholders in primaries than they are contesting Democrats.

Now these two open seats offer opportunities to the Democrats. It is always difficult to unseat incumbents but little-known conservatives may be easier to run against.

One incumbent Republican Senator, Ken Stolle of Virginia Beach, was quoted as saying "The dynamics are clearly different as a result of the elections tonight. It makes it harder for us to maintain a Republican majority in the Senate. I think it can still be done, but all the stars have to be aligned, with very little room for deviation."

On the other hand, the districts generally vote Republican, so a strong case will have to be made to persuade voters to support the Democrats.

If the more conservative Republicans win their races, and the Republicans retain the majority in the Senate, the Republican caucus may swing toward the right. The long-standing bipartisan working relationship between moderate Republicans and the Democrats might not survive, and the Senate could become more like the Republican House.

Thus the stakes are high in November. Democrats have a great opportunity to gain the majority in the Senate, but it will be difficult and challenging to do so. If the Republicans including these new, more conservative candidates win, the Senate could be a very different place.