Virginia GOP favored to win control of state Senate

Robert McCartney
Columnist November 2, 2011

We might need to reconsider the now-conventional view that the Northern Virginia suburbs are a bulwark against the extreme conservatism embraced in rural areas and elsewhere in the state.

I say that in light of the recent news that the Loudoun County GOP sent out a Halloween e-mail depicting President Obama as a zombie with a bullet hole in his forehead.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The county Republican committee apologized, and a communications official resigned. But the missive isn’t the only sign that parts of our region remain firmly in the conservative camp this year, in a statewide trend that seems likely to hand control of the state Senate to the GOP in Tuesday’s election.

In a newly created Senate district in western Loudoun and Prince William counties, even Democrats concede that outspoken conservative Dick Black will probably prevail.

A former delegate, Black is best known for sending plastic models of fetuses to legislators before an abortion vote. Of his career highlights, however, my personal favorite was his “nightie” explanation of why a husband couldn’t be convicted of raping his wife.

“I do not know how on earth you can validly get a conviction of a husband-wife rape where they are living together, sleeping in the same bed, she’s in a nightie, and so forth,” he said in a General Assembly debate on a spousal rape bill.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. As recently as mid-September, top Republican politicians in Richmond said they’d be lucky to gain the net two seats needed to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats.

At the time, the Democrats seemed to enjoy key advantages. They had the upper hand in drawing lines for new Senate districts, and they did so to protect incumbents. (The GOP did the same for districts for the House of Delegates, which it controls.)

Democrats also were optimistic because they thought they’d be able to beat some of the hard-line conservative Republicans who won primaries with tea party support.

Today, the GOP is confident of picking up enough seats to win control of the Senate, and it hopes to end up with at least a 23 to 17 majority. Democrats sound increasingly despondent and acknowledge that they’ll have to sweep all the close races to retain their sway.

A Republican victory would give the party complete dominance in Richmond. The GOP is certain to retain control of the House of Delegates, and it holds the three executive offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The GOP has surged ahead mainly because Virginia independents have turned decisively against Democrats in general since 2009, according to politicians and strategists for both parties. That results from unhappiness with the slow economy and high public spending, mainly by the federal government.

It drives Democrats crazy that they’re suffering at the state level for the party’s problems in Washington. But thoughtful Democrats acknowledge that they benefited from a similar dynamic from 2006 to 2008, when Republicans were discredited at the end of the George W. Bush administration.

Republicans also are up because Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has emphasized prudent management rather than pushing conservative social issues, remains popular.

The prevailing political climate was on display Tuesday evening in a debate at South County Secondary School in Lorton. In a race considered to be one of the tightest in the state, Republican Miller Baker is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. George Barker in a district comprising parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties and Alexandria.

Republican Baker began both his opening and closing statements by emphasizing national themes. “Look around you. Our country is seriously off track,” he said.

Democrat Barker emphasized that he was a moderate who has worked effectively with Republicans, including McDonnell. Barker boasted that he’s the only Democratic Senate candidate in Fairfax endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which he called “a very conservative group.”

There’s a telling irony in Barker’s appeal. Barker himself was one of the top Senate Democrats responsible for redrawing his district this year to try to make it more Democratic.

When the Democrats can’t even gerrymander themselves into reliably safe seats in the Washington suburbs, it’s clear the winds favoring the GOP in the Old Dominion continue to blow strong.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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