What a Republican Senate means for Virginia

November 9, 2011

— Virginia Republicans immediately asserted their new power Wednesday, dismissing talk of sharing authority with Democrats in the state Senate, even though the two parties are likely to have equal numbers of members.

“Make no mistake about it — there is a Republican majority in the state Senate,” Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) said at an afternoon news conference.

Bolling would cast the deciding vote in any tie, giving his party the authority to control the chamber and run its committees. The last time both parties each had 20 members, Democrats and the GOP shared power and committee chairmanships.

If Tuesday’s tenuous election results hold, the GOP will be in control of the executive branch and both houses of the General Assembly, and the tenor of Richmond could turn decidedly to the right.

On the campaign trail, Republicans generally focused their pitches on boosting jobs, curbing spending and streamlining government. In many parts of the state, GOP candidates encountered token opposition, or none, from Democrats.

But many of those elected are social conservatives eager to revive legislation — to further regulate abortion and eliminate environmental rules, for example — that stalled or died in a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Even before the election, social conservatives were preparing to reintroduce hundreds of bills that had gone nowhere over the past two years, including measures that would require doctors to offer anesthesia for a fetus before an abortion; permit guns in parks, colleges and libraries; mandate drug screening for welfare recipients; and allow employers to fire workers for not speaking English.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said that a Republican-controlled General Assembly will be more likely to push socially conservative issues — something he said he will not shy away from.

“I’m going to be strongly pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage,” McDonnell said.

The Senate’s top Democrat, Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, warned Republicans against trying to push a conservative agenda.

“You do these things, but you may wind up doing them at your own risk,” said Saslaw (Fairfax). “I would just caution them on trying to go crazy with some far-right agenda on a lot of this stuff.”

The new Republican caucus includes longtime antiabortion activist Dick Black, who served in the state House for eight years and on Tuesday won a Senate seat representing Loudoun and Prince William counties. Black’s confrontational tactics — he once sent pink plastic models of fetuses to fellow lawmakers as they prepared to vote on an abortion bill — sometimes drew ire from his party. But some Republicans say that Virginians have now made clear that they support a more conservative government.

Tom Garrett, the Louisa County commonwealth’s attorney, who won a Senate seat from an area northwest of Richmond, has proposed mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients and has advocated abolishing Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is charged with keeping air and water clean.

As a delegate, Charles W. Carrico Sr. of Grayson, who won election to the Senate from southwest Virginia, sponsored a measure that would allow the manufacture of firearms not regulated by federal law if they are constructed in Virginia and are never sold or moved outside the state.

Weeks before Election Day, Senate Republicans were already debating whether to replace their moderate leader, Thomas K. Norment Jr. (James City), with a more conservative senator who would better reflect a new caucus that is keen to push forward on initiatives that got nowhere under a divided government.

Counting on the governor

Conservatives say they are counting on McDonnell, who has devoted himself to a moderate agenda in his first two years in office, to back more sharply conservative proposals that have been pressed by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), a tea party favorite, but that have usually been derailed by Senate Democrats.

House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox said Republicans in that chamber are eager to work with a united legislature and a governor who will help reduce the size of government to core functions.

“I don’t think the governor is going to have to change,” said Cox (Colonial Heights). “You don’t change your values.”

Carrico, who will move to the Senate after a decade in the House, said he plans to reintroduce a proposal to amend the state Constitution to protect prayer in public places, including schools.

“I worked with [McDonnell] in the House,” Carrico said. “I know him and his beliefs. I think he would support these efforts. I think he would understand these problems.”

McDonnell, once considered too conservative to be elected governor, has largely avoided hot-button subjects in his first two years in office. Instead, he has championed less controversial kitchen-table issues — jobs, traffic congestion and education.

The governor, who has built a national profile as the leader of the Republican Governors Association, will have to decide whether the image he wants to project in the final two years of his term will be that of a centrist or of a more aggressive politician with what Democrats deride as a “God, guns and gays” agenda.

“All those bills would be on the governor’s desk in five weeks,” Saslaw said. “And they would be signed.”

After angering some conservatives in his first 21 months in office, McDonnell might benefit politically from supporting tougher policies, strengthening his position in time for the GOP vice-presidential selection process. If the ticket is topped by Mitt Romney, a former governor from Massachusetts whose moderate positions make him suspect in the eyes of some conservatives, the party might be looking for a Southern Republican with strong conservative credentials.

Budget priorities

McDonnell’s first priority now will be the two-year budget, which he will introduce next month. He said he is looking to cut spending in areas in which he thinks government should not be involved, such as public broadcasting, and to add money to priorities such as economic development. He also hopes to drill for oil off Virginia’s coast and reform public elementary, middle and high schools.

“Republicans have just shown more of a willingness to cut spending, make the hard decisions to restore fiscal responsibility without raising taxes,” McDonnell said. “The Democrats have been much more willing to say the solutions to most of their problems are raising taxes.”

He said he knows that governing with one party may be just as difficult as with two. Some of his proposals, including privatizing state-owned liquor stores, have not won Republican or Democratic support.

Bolling, who ran with McDonnell in 2009 and is vying to succeed him in 2014, acknowledged differences within his party but played down potential problems.

“The Republican Party is not monolithic,” Bolling said. “Having a majority will make it easier to get our agenda through the next two years. By all means, it is not a guarantee we get everything we want.”

The governor and other Republicans say their wins on Tuesday mean that Virginians approve of the direction of the state under McDonnell — a marked contrast with how they feel about the nation’s direction under President Obama. Democrats, sensing a defeat, began minimizing the meaning of a GOP victory in the weeks before the election.

“I don’t think we can read anything into one election,” said U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democratic former governor who worked for months to keep the state Senate in his party’s hands. “As we’ve seen in Virginia, as we’ve seen in the nation, if the pendulum goes one direction, it’s much quicker than ever to swing back.”

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