Dem State Senate Coup Gives Va. ‘Battlefield’ Status

Coming on the veritable eve of the 2008 presidential primaries, Virginia’s statewide election of its senators and delegates Tuesday took on considerable national significance, signaling that it is a serious candidate to swing from the “red” Republican to the “blue” Democratic column in its voting for president of the U.S. next November. It could become one of a handful of so-called “battleground” states that is targeted as decisive for the outcome of that election.

By achieving a net gain of four new seats to takeover control of the state senate in Tuesday’s election, Democrats in Virginia have prevailed statewide for the third straight year since Bush carried Virginia in the presidential election of 2004. Following Democrat Tim Kaine’s gubernatorial election victory in 2005, last year Democrat Jim Webb upset a popular incumbent to become a U.S. Senator in 2006, and now Democrats have wrested control of the state senate from the GOP rivals in 2007.

Suddenly, Virginia has to be taken dead seriously as a key national “battleground state” by both parties in the 2008 presidential election, a role reserved for the likes of Florida and Ohio in past presidential races.

This will put an added burden on the state party organizations, as they will be challenged to field candidates for the U.S. Senate and Congress next year that can help their party’s chances of winning the state for its presidential nominee. It means, among other things, that if either party thought of punting in any part of the state, of not fielding a strong candidate against a popular incumbent, for example, that notion will have to be quashed.

Just as Virginia’s narrow victory for Webb last November tilted the entire U.S. Senate in favor of the Democrats, Virginia may well determine who the next president of the U.S. will be a year from now.

Seeing these kinds of factors looming over the horizon, but also keenly aware that the balance of power in the State Senate was up for grabs, both parties and their financial supporters threw more resources into eight critical state senate races than has been seen before. That included an unprecedented television advertising barrage, especially in Northern Virginia.

To gain the net four state senate seats, Democrats defeated three sitting Republican incumbents and won one open seat formerly held by a Republican. No Republican defeated an incumbent Democrat or won a seat formerly held by a Democrat.

The result “definitely means that we are a battleground state for the presidential election next year,” State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington and Falls Church said in an interview with the News-Press yesterday.

But she said that the new Democratic majority in the state senate will assist Gov. Tim Kaine with his legislative priorities and that will include “a more progressive agenda.”

Democrats also picked up a net of four new seats in the House of Delegates, but still remain seven short of a majority in that body. One of the gains was achieved by McLean’s Margaret Vanderhye, who won the 34th District seat vacated by the retirement of Republican Vince Callahan.

But with a new 21-19 majority in the State Senate, Democrats are looking forward to chairing every committee in the body and Whipple predicted that would result in considerable added clout for Northern Virginia interests and priorities. She will head the Rules Committee and other Northern Virginia senators will head the finance, commerce and labor, privileges and elections and agricultural, conservation and natural resources committees.

“It is very exciting to be in the majority,” Whipple said, who will commence her fourth senate term. All the current and newly-elected Democratic senators are expected to gather later this month “just to get to know each other,” she said, in anticipation of the new legislative session in January.

The three Republican incumbents who lost were somewhat hurt by the public’s negative attitudes toward President Bush, she said. “The GOP is not at a high point to begin with,” she quipped. But she said that, in general, the defeated Republican incumbents “had become more conservative than their districts.”

This was especially true in Newport News, where Democrats took advantage of the fact that a moderate Republican had been unseated by a more conservative challenge in the primary. It helped enable Democrat John Miller to defeat GOP nominee Tricia Stall in a seat that had previously been held by Republican Marty Williams.

On the other hand, in the view of State Del. Bob Hull of the 38th District of Greater Falls Church, another Democratic victory came because the Republican tried to run “to the left” of her Democratic opponent.

In this case, he said, in Fairfax County’s 34th District, incumbent GOP candidate Jeannemarie Devolites Davis’ anti-gun advocacy drew the support of independent New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but it caused the powerful National Rifle Association to endorse her conservative Democratic rival, Chap Petersen, at the last minute, helping propel him to victory.

Hull ran unopposed in the Mason District area of Greater Falls Church, as did Del. Jim Scott, and not only did Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross glide to re-election but in McLean, incumbent Republican Supervisor Joan DuBois was unseated by Democratic challenger John Foust.

For Fairfax County Board chair, Democrat Gerry Connolly sailed to victory over the GOP’s Gary Baise and Independent Green Gail Parker, and for Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney, Democrat Ray Morrogh, a protégé of retiring Bob Horan, defeated Patrick McDade. For School Board at Large, Falls Church’s Tina Hone was the top vote getter, with Annandale’s Ilryong Moon second and James Raney third, all three winning slots.

Other than the fact that Whipple had nominal opposition from an Independent Green candidate she said she never met on the campaign trail, the only contested race that City of Falls Church voters could impact was for Clerk of the Court in the Arlington-Falls Church Circuit Court. They went as did their Arlington neighbors overwhelmingly for Paul Ferguson, currently the chair of the Arlington County Board.

Democrats Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes won handily the two seats up for election on the Arlington Board.

In one hotly-contested state senate race in Fairfax, GOP incumbent Ken Cuccinelli appeared to win by a 92-vote margin over Democratic challenger Janet Oleszek, although a canvas of the vote was still being conducted at the time the News-Press went to press.

The other big state senate win for the Democrats in Fairfax was George Barker over incumbent Jay O’Brien. That upset was particularly gratifying for the Equality Virginia gay and lesbian political action committee, which said that O’Brien “was one of the only candidates in this (election) cycle to use overtly anti-gay themes in his campaign.”

According to Equality Virginia’s Dyana Mason, all three challengers that her PAC backed to take over GOP senate seats — Barker, Miller and Ralph Northam — won.