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Byrne-Connolly Primary Roil Expected as Davis Bows Out


Dems See Key Chance to Gain In Congress 

A long-standing, sharp intra-Democratic Party rivalry between Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly and former U.S. Rep. Leslie Byrne is expected to translate into a white-hot Democratic primary contest to replace Rep. Thomas M. Davis III this spring.

With Davis’ official announcement yesterday that he will not seek re-election to his 11th District Congressional seat in the fall, Democrats see a golden opportunity to pick up an extra seat in the U.S. Congress. It goes hand-in-hand with their hopes of gaining an extra seat in the U.S. Senate from Virginia as well, given the plans of U.S. Sen. John W. Warner to retire.

Davis’ retirement has been expected for months now, and rumors have also been flying that Connolly, the powerful head of the Fairfax government who easily won re-election in November, would seek to replace him. Two months ago, Davis ditched plans to run to fill Sen. Warner’s U.S. Senate seat when Virginia Republicans set up a nominating plan that would almost certainly exclude him.

This was in the context of the expected Davis retirement and Connolly’s bid that Byrne cut to the front of the line last November with a preemptive announcement of her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the 11th District, and an aggressive fundraising campaign and pursuit of endorsements.

Connolly has not yet formally announced he will run. But, like Byrne, he was swift to issue a written statement in response to Davis’ announcement yesterday.

While praising Davis for 30 years of public service in the area, Connolly noted that Davis’ retirement “reminds us that a new day is dawning in Northern Virginia.”

He wrote, “In the few weeks short weeks since I formed an exploratory committee to weigh the possibility of running for Congress here in the 11th District, I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. Elected officials, Democratic activists and everyday citizens from across the district have encouraged me to make my candidacy official.” He added, “I plan to make an announcement regarding my political plans very soon.”

In her response to the news, Byrne issued the following:

“While I have disagreed with Rep. Davis more often than not, like his vote against the bi-partisan stimulus package in the U.S. House yesterday, I salute his service to the 11th District. I know he was recently disappointed by his constituents, the Virginia Republican Party and his minority status in the U.S. House, but that does not negate his efforts on behalf of D.C. voting rights, funding for Metro and building a strong technology industry in Northern Virginia. I will keep those efforts in mind as I pursue my election to the 11th Congressional District.”

Byrne’s reference to Davis’ being “disappointed by his constituents” was referencing the failure of his wife, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, to win a state senate seat last November, in a district that heavily overlaps Davis’ own. The winner of that race, Democrat State Sen. Chap Petersen, has since jumped on board the Byrne for Congress campaign.

The expected Byrne-Connolly face off, which will include the announced candidacy of Iraq War veteran Doug Denneny, will be titanic struggle between now and the June Democratic primary date. Byrne announced last week that she raised $115,000 in her first two months since announcing her candidacy, and Connolly’s “Exploratory Committee” reported yesterday that it raised $160,930 in the three weeks since its formation.

Davis has been masterful in winning, and holding onto the 11th District seat since he first took control of it in 1994. That’s because it was brought into being as a new district in Virginia in 1992, reflecting the state’s population growth, by Democrats then controlling the Virginia state legislature.

The Democrats carefully crafted the District to favor a Democratic voting majority by about a two percentage-point margin. It was originally expected that young entrepreneur Mark Warner would seek the seat, but he chose instead to become the chair of the State Democratic Party, and then get elected governor. Mark Warner will most likely seek to fill U.S. Senator John Warner’s seat in the fall.

But it was Byrne who wound up running for the Democrats in the 11th District in 1992, and she won to become the first female U.S. Congressman ever elected from Virginia. Prior to that she’d been a state delegate representing the 38th District, with offices on E. Broad St. in Falls Church.

In 1994, however, Davis challenged her and won a narrow victory. A former Fairfax Supervisor with a reputation for moderate, pro-business views, he’s maintained that profile during his years in the U.S. Congress. He’s held the seat without a serious challenge ever since, succeeding in six re-election bids. With redistricting in 2002, the 11th District moved further into Fairfax County, where it encompasses almost the entire Mason District of Fairfax County, considered part of greater Falls Church. It is adjacent to, but not in, the City of Falls Church, among other areas.

The Byrne-Connolly rivalry predates the formation of the 11th District, back to the days when they clashed as political heavyweights in the Mason District. They’ve consistently been on different sides of intra-party issues since.   

Connolly went on to win an election to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors from the Providence District prior to his first election as chairman of the County Board in 2002. Byrne went on to win an election to a term in the Virginia State Senate, and in 2006 won the Democratic nomination for Virginia Lieutenant Governor in a tough race against three challengers. She narrowly lost the general election. She and her husband Larry have continued to live in the Sleepy Hollow section of greater Falls Church.

As for Rep. Davis, two setbacks in rapid succession last fall contributed to his decision to retire. First was the defeat of his wife in her race for the State Senate and the second was the state GOP’s decision to effectively preclude his nomination to replace Sen. John Warner, by opting for a nominating convention instead of an open primary. That move ensured that the state’s most conservative Republicans would dictate the party’s nominees.

Moreover, the demographic shift that led to the defeat of his wife would have left Davis vulnerable to defeat in his next re-election bid, had he chosen to run.

But in his retirement announcement yesterday, Davis said he is “confident we will keep my seat in Republican hands.”

“The time is right to take a sabbatical from public life,” he said in a statement. “I want to emphasize that I am not closing the door on future public service, but after 29 years in office, winning 11 elections, I think it is time for a respite.”

According to the Congressional Quarterly however, Davis “will be regarded as a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2012, when Democratic incumbent Jim Webb will be up for re-election.