“If you want to be a school board member, run for school board,” said the man Baker would like to unseat, Sen. George Barker (D- Fairfax) .
But this year in Fairfax County, the race for Senate on Nov. 8 could have a whole lot to do with school board races.
Half the 12-member board is retiring, and a GOP strategist has helped six candidates promising to shrink class sizes and soften disciplinary policies. The drive against the officially nonpartisan school board could spill over to the Senate race, some political observers say, by boosting voter turnout for what is normally a sleepy, off-year election.
“Republicans are trying to turn this into a change election,” said Bob Roberts, a James Madison University political scientist. “If you have unhappiness in the school board races, it might motivate people to come out and vote Republican up-ticket.”
Both candidates agree that job creation, transportation and, yes, education are the most pressing issues in the 39th District race — one of the state’s most closely watched races as Republicans seek to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
Baker also is trying to make an issue of the district itself, a newly created, pork chop-shaped swath that curves from Alexandria City to Manassas. Barker was the chief architect of the Senate’s redistricting map, a task that came the freshman senator’s way because his day job has made him a census wonk; he’s a health-care planner who figures out where new hospitals and nursing homes should go in Northern Virginia.
“Gerrymandering on steroids” is how Baker describes the map.
Barker contends the district, where Barack Obama won 58 percent of the vote in 2008 and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell took 53 percent in 2009, was drawn fairly.
Barker is highlighting the role his opponent played, as a young lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department and as Republican counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, promoting Robert Bork and then Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. A constitutional lawyer at McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Washington, Baker is proud of his place in history, even though Bork’s nomination failed and Thomas’s became a sexual-harassment spectacle.
“Judge Robert Bork is my hero,” Baker said in an address to the Greenspring Republican Club in August.
“I helped put together the briefing books that President Reagan looked at when he selected judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. And by the way, the failure to confirm Judge Bork was a huge mistake by the United States Senate, one of the worst things the Senate has done in the last quarter-century.”
He called Thomas, who happens to live in the district, “one of the best justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Barker, convinced Bork and Thomas don’t have a big fan base in the swing district, is only to happy to spread the word.
“Calls his crowning achievement putting Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court,” Barker’s campaign literature says of his Republican opponent.
And then there’s the matter of the names.
It’s not quite as confusing as Warner vs. Warner. But the similarity could trip up enough voters to impact a tight race, experts say. And everyone expects this one to be a squeaker — charges of gerrymandering aside — given that Democrats are ailing nationally and that Barker beat Sen. J.K. “Jay” O’Brien (R) four years ago by just 400 votes.
“That’s always potentially a risky thing, to have very similar names, especially in a lower profile race,” said Virginia Tech political scientist Craig Leonard Brians.
Barker has tried to clear up the confusion with signs reading “Barker not Baker,” a play on the “Mark not John” slogan that now-Sen. Mark Warner (D) used in his failed 1996 bid to unseat then-U.S. Sen. John Warner (R). (The letters are white but for the first “r” in “Barker,” highlighted in a light blue.)
Barker has started using his middle name — Lincoln, not a bad name in politics — on some signs and literature. And he’s made use of mnemonics: a cartoon dog by the name “Barker” in one mailing; a rolling pin and flour beside a critique of Baker.
Baker has a name-differentiation strategy of his own.
“What I like to say is, the difference between Baker and Barker is the ‘r,’ and ‘r’ stands for ‘recession,’ ” Baker said. “If you get rid of the ‘r’ you get rid of the recession.”
Both men stress the need to expand and diversify Virginia’s economy, particularly as looming budget cuts threaten the federal spending that protected the state from the recession’s biggest blows.
Baker said he would attract more businesses to Virginia by reducing the state’s 6 percent corporate income tax — or getting rid of it completely.
“I would like to eliminate the corporate income tax if we can,” he said.
The tax brings in $800 million a year. Baker said he’s not sure the state could afford to lose that revenue — “We have to be mindful of our fiscal obligations,” he noted — but he’d like to give it a try.
“Throughout state government, we have to look at things like administrative bloat,” he said.
Asked for an example, he said state government could save $1 million a year by cutting funding for public broadcasting. As for the other $799 million, Baker said he’s confident he could find it.
Barker considers himself pro-business, too, but said that eliminating the tax is unrealistic. He said he has pushed for moderate measures, like expanding the types of business eligible for government-relocation incentives.
“If the Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, and the Republican House of Delegates can’t find this huge, $800 million [in budget savings], I question that someone who has basically done nothing in Virginia can suddenly find it,” Barker said.
Throughout the campaign, Democrat Barker has portrayed his challenger as a right-wing zealot and himself as someone who has worked well enough with Republicans to get 20 bills passed this year. The senator features of a photo of himself with McDonnell in a TV ad. When President Obama visited Virginia this month, Barker was among several state Dems who said he wasn’t committed to supporting his reelection.
“George is running under false pretenses,” Baker said. “He is a liberal. He’s running as a moderate.”
As voters sort that out, political observers will be tuned in, said communication professor Stephen J. Farnsworth of George Mason University.
“This will be one of the ones to watch on election night, absolutely,” he said.