GOP declares victory in Virginia Senate

November 9, 2011

The day after Virginia Republicans appeared to have picked up two state Senate seats, the party has declared it has control over the chamber.

Party leaders said they won a seat in Southside Virginia. And in a statement Wednesday they claim they also won Sen. R. Edward Houck’s district south of Fredericksburg. That race — in which Houck trailed by 224 votes — is almost certain to head to a recount.

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

Local elections boards met around the state Wednesday to count provisional ballots and conduct what is known as canvassing, which involves reviewing calculations, tapes from voting machines and other Election Day records to make sure no obvious errors occurred. That process is expected to be completed by Thursday.

The results then will be forwarded to the Virginia State Board of Elections. The board will review the results and formally certify them on Nov. 28. Only at that point can a losing candidate petition the circuit court in his home county for a recount. The candidate would have 10 days from certification to do so.

A Republican pick-up of two Senate seats would divide the 40-member chamber evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Any tie votes would be broken by Bolling, a Republican.

The only other time the chamber split 20-20 Democrats and Republicans split power as part an agreement with both parties sharing control of committees.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said in an interview Wednesday that the Democrats will pursue counting every ballot in Houck’s race, but acknowledged it does not look promising. “I don’t hold out much hope,’’ Saslaw said. “You go through a lot of what ifs.”

Saslaw said if Houck loses, then Norment will be able to decide whether Republicans take outright control or allow the two parties to share power.

The two spoke Tuesday night. “He’s not an enemy,’’ he said.

In the House of Delegates, Republicans picked up six seats for a two-thirds majority — the highest in Virginia history. Three races were too close to call, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said late Tuesday.

“It’s a very good night for Republicans in Virginia,” McDonnell said on election night.

The off-year election — Virginia was one of only four states to hold legislative elections Tuesday — is seen as a harbinger for next year’s contests for president and U.S. Senate in the critical swing state. Even without a single candidate running statewide, money poured in from across the nation, contributing to the races’ price tag of more than $50 million.

Winning the Senate would mark a triumph for McDonnell, who raised at least $5 million for Republicans, personally recruited candidates and campaigned in every region of the state.

During the campaign, Republicans sought to capitalize on voters’ anger with Washington, the nation’s high jobless rate and the federal government’s credit rating downgrade. They repeatedly compared Virginia Democrats to President Obama, featuring him in Republican TV ads, mailers and brochures.

Democrats painted this year’s Republican crop of candidates as too conservative on abortion, immigration and gun rights. If the Democratic-led Senate was not able to stop Republican proposals, they said, the state would move too far to the right.

Redistricting

Democrats in the Senate tried to hold on to their fragile majority largely by making each of their 22 existing districts more Democratic during this year’s redistricting process.

Republicans had the edge in nearly every other way: They raised millions of additional dollars, recruited more candidates and benefited from an increasingly unpopular Democratic president and an increasingly popular Republican governor.

“It’s still a map that favors Democrats,” said Phil Cox, McDonnell’s top political adviser. “But Virginians believe the state is moving in the right direction, and running on the governor’s agenda helps.”

Republican had another advantage: more candidates. They fielded 36 Republicans to run in the Senate’s 40 districts, compared with just 28 for the Democrats. The GOP had to persuade one delegate to give up his safe House seat and a senator to move and challenge an incumbent.

Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), who serves as chairwoman of her caucus, said Democrats never seriously considered recruiting candidates for more than the 22 seats they already control and the pair of new Republican-leaning districts created in redistricting. “It would have been a waste of resources to recruit other candidates,” she said.

In the final weeks before the election, worried Democrats looking to knock off a Republican threw their support behind an independent, pumping more than $200,000 into his campaign. He lost.

Republicans urged their candidates to talk about the economy, Washington and little else — the successful formula McDonnell used in 2009 — and Democrats said they responded to the needs and concerns of the each specific district.

Tom Mills, retired after 23 years of service in the Army, said his anger against Obama led him to vote for every Republican he could find on the ballot at Hayfield Elementary School in Fairfax County. “I think he’s a rampant socialist, if not a communist. Everything he does is against America.”

But former governor Timothy M. Kaine, a former national party chairman who is running for U.S. Senate next year, said Republicans tried to cast the spotlight off their own ineffective policies.

“There’s been a lot of effort to change the subject and take attention away,” he said. “I’m not surprised the other guys want to talk about national issues because I think they are trying to deflect attention from their own policies.”

There is some evidence that the Democrats’ emphasis on the Republicans’ conservative agenda may have helped them hold off some challenges.

“I’m a liberal Democrat, and the conservative trend scares me,” said Gary Buffington, 61, a retired Census Bureau statistician, who was voting with his wife, Mary, at Francis Scott Key Middle School in Franconia. He and his wife voted for Sen. George Barker, hoping not only to keep him in office but also to thwart GOP hopes for a Senate takeover.

Democrats tried to use Washington’s unpopularity to their advantage by telling voters that a divided state government — with a Democratic Senate and Republican House — has been successful, while a divided federal government has not been.

“People just seem to be disgusted with the federal government’s inability to work together to address a whole host of issues,” Houck said. “It presents a great opportunity for me to talk about what we’ve done in Richmond.”

Whipple said Obama’s unpopularity may have helped Republicans, but only marginally. “These aren’t national races. These aren’t statewide races,” she said. “They are local races.”

National politics

Republicans began plotting their takeover in 2009 after a Democrat narrowly won a special election for a Fairfax County senate seat left vacant when Ken Cuccinelli II (R) was elected attorney general.

The loss of that seat served as a wake-up call.

Senate leaders sought advice from House Republicans, a more conservative group with marked electoral success, but one they had sparred with for years. They told incumbent senators to mail constituents regularly and hold telephone town halls. They hired a fundraiser and a press secretary for the first time.

“This was a thought-out process,” said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover), who serves as the Senate’s Republican leader pro tempore and was involved in the strategy from the start.

McDonnell raised more than $5 million for the races, eclipsing what Kaine raised in 2007. He encouraged Middle Resolution, a group whose goal is to restore the individual rights, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that works for the election of Republican legislators and officials, to send nearly $2 million to Virginia.

Republicans also kept the successful infrastructure it had in place in 2009 and 2010, including 11 offices across the state, and picked up the tab for get-out-the-vote efforts and most campaign mailers.

Whipple said Democrats counted on having a better ground game — identifying voters and getting them out to polls — even though they had far less to spend on outreach than in 2007.

Democrats boasted of making more than 2 million calls and door knocks through the campaign, trying to contact each potential voters three times each. Republicans said they made nearly 800,000 calls since July, less than half they made in 2009 for the governor’s race.

Democrats were outraised but insisted they had enough money to be competitive. Saslaw lobbied the Democratic legislative Campaign Committee, which gave $530,000, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), who donated $150,000 of his own money to six Democratic candidates opposed to gun rights.

Warner, Kaine and former gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe campaigned with dozens of candidates and raised money, including more than $1 million at a fundraiser headlined by former president Bill Clinton.

Staff writers Jeremy Borden, Caitlin Gibson, Fredrick Kunkle, Carol Morello, Susan Svrluga, Patricia Sullivan and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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