October 19, 2011

SINCE THE 2007 ELECTIONS, when they gained a narrow majority in the upper house of Virginia’s General Assembly, Senate Democrats have been the grown-ups in Richmond. The role was forced on them by House Republicans, who have sent over waves of reckless legislation.

Senate Democrats defeated a House attempt to force Virginia colleges and universities to allow students and faculty to carry guns on campus and a bill to repeal the state’s 20-year-old law limiting individuals to one handgun purchase a month. They killed legislation targeting illegal immigrants that would have plunged Virginia into the same bitter debates and federal litigation that have ensnared Arizona and Alabama. They rejected a bill that would have outlawed abortion in Virginia by granting fetuses legal rights and another that would have forced welfare recipients to undergo drug screenings. They halted Republican attempts to raid scarce funds for public schools and colleges.

All that is cause for worry about the consequences of a GOP takeover of the Senate in statewide elections Nov. 8. So is the pledge that many (though not all) Republican candidates have taken to oppose any new taxes, a stance that would condemn Northern Virginia to a future of steadily worsening traffic gridlock.

Northern Virginia has just one sitting Republican senator, which suggests the region’s voters have found the latest generation of Republicans too extreme, partisan or divorced from state and local issues. Unfortunately, in our view, that remains the case in most of the Senate races. The following candidates, listed in bold type, are our picks. (To determine your district and candidates, go to https://www.voterinfo.sbe.virginia.gov/PublicSite/Public/FT2/PublicLookup.aspx and click on “My Ballot.”)

DISTRICT 13: Before Republican Richard H. “Dick” Black lost his bid for reelection to the House of Delegates in 2005, he was known as one of the legislature’s most over-the-top ideologues, notorious for such stunts as sending plastic fetuses to lawmakers (in the context of the abortion debate) and rants against homosexuals. Even fellow Republicans distanced themselves from his antics. Now he’s running in a newly drawn district that includes parts of Prince William and Loudoun counties. A vastly better choice is Democrat J. Shawn Mitchell, a cogent, serious-minded businessman who has common-sense proposals for encouraging banks to lend to small businesses and helping state universities to monetize their biotech research.

DISTRICT 27: Jill Holtzman Vogel, the Republican incumbent in this district, which includes Loudoun County, is a lawyer with an impressive command of state and local issues, zest for her work and a record of achievement that includes expanding access to higher education. We disagree with some of her initiatives, such as leading Virginia’s legislative attack on the Obama health-care law. But Ms. Vogel remains a thoughtful lawmaker and a better bet than Democratic challenger Shaun D. Broy, a political novice.

DISTRICT 29: Charles J. Colgan, a moderate Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has been a civil, widely respected and deeply committed lawmaker for more than three decades. His Republican opponent, Tom Gordy, a lobbyist, has had almost no involvement in local, state or community issues in this Prince William district and proposes no ideas for fixing the state’s crippled transportation system. Mr. Colgan is the easy choice.

DISTRICT 30: Adam Ebbin, a detail-oriented Democratic member of the House now running for this open Senate seat, has been a leader on environmental issues. He’s the only plausible candidate in this overwhelmingly Democratic district, which includes parts of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax. The Republican candidate, Timothy McGhee, is a quick study and a moderate, but his campaign, lacking funds, is largely quixotic.

DISTRICT 31: Democrat Barbara Favola, a knowledgeable veteran of the Arlington County Board, would be effective in the Senate from Day 1 representing this district, which runs along the Potomac from Arlington to eastern Loudoun County. Her Republican opponent, high-tech investor Caren Merrick, attacks her for supporting tax increases. But Ms. Merrick, despite her valuable business experience, has offered no plausible alternative for tackling gridlock. (She mentions offshore oil and gas revenues, which, at best, are many years away.) Moreover, Ms. Merrick appears not to have given much thought to the range of important social issues she’d face.

DISTRICT 32: Janet D. Howell, a 20-year Democratic incumbent, was the first woman named to the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Today, as one of a handful of budget negotiators in the legislature, she’s among the most influential lawmakers in Richmond and a key advocate for mental-health issues. Her Republican challenger, Patrick Forrest, is a socially moderate lawyer. But he’s misled and alarmed voters by suggesting that Dulles Toll Road commuters may soon face $17 tolls — a wildly unrealistic projection based on obsolete data. In any event, the tolls are unconnected to Ms. Howell, who has ably represented this slice of northern Fairfax and Arlington counties.

DISTRICT 33: Nothing much has changed in this rerun of the 2007 race in a district that includes parts of eastern Loudoun and western Fairfax counties. Democrat Mark R. Herring, the incumbent, is a serious, substantive lawmaker, while Republican Patricia Phillips, is a lackluster social conservative whose grasp of state issues is slight. Ms. Phillips speaks airily of diverting $1 billion from the budget annually for transportation but refuses to say what state programs she’d cut to do it. By contrast, Mr. Herring is a pragmatist who has focused on high-tech research and development issues, introducing bills that would help small firms and entrepreneurs.

DISTRICT 34: J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, a savvy Democratic lawyer who won this seat in 2007 after serving in the House of Delegates, is a leader in Richmond on clean and renewable energy. His Republican opponent, Gerarda Culipher, also a lawyer, is bright and engaging, but she has scant experience in local or state affairs. She also takes an absolutist stance against any new taxes, making it hard to imagine how she’d address the daunting transportation problems in this central Fairfax County district.

DISTRICT 35: Richard L. Saslaw, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, is one of the most consequential politicians in the state, a garrulous straight talker and a master of the trade-offs required to make policy and pass legislation. He faces only nominal opposition from Republican Robert Sarvis, a high-tech entrepreneur with no political experience, and an obscure independent candidate. The district is in eastern Fairfax County.

DISTRICT 36: Linda T. “Toddy” Puller, the Democratic incumbent and the widow of a Vietnam veteran, is a problem-solver who has been a champion on veterans’ issues. By contrast, her Republican opponent, Jeffrey Frederick, has embraced the fantasy that, by slashing taxes on seniors, businesses, cars and houses, the state will magically gather enough revenue to solve its transportation problem. Mr. Frederick’s previous turn in politics, as chairman of the state Republican Party, was marked by mismanagement and incendiary remarks and ended with his removal after barely a year amid criticism from top GOP leaders. He’d be a poor choice for this district, which follows Route 1 from Fairfax through Prince William and into Stafford County.

DISTRICT 37: Democratic incumbent David W. Marsden, a former director of Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice, is the legislature’s undisputed expert on the subject and a sane, sensible voice on criminal justice questions generally. The Republican challenger, Jason Flanary, is a conservative pollster who thinks cannibalizing funding for schools and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse — in one of the best-governed states in the nation — is the answer to paying for new roads and bridges. Mr. Marsden is a straight talker; Mr. Flanary, running in a swing district that slices through western Fairfax, likes to have things both ways. He promises to oppose all new taxes but says he didn’t take a pledge to do so, and dodges questions on immigration and abortion.

DISTRICT 39: In this race between two thoughtful moderates, George L. Barker, a bright health-care expert who is the Democratic incumbent, is the clear pick for two reasons. First, he has been heavily involved in local and community issues for years. Second, he is one of the more effective, pragmatic lawmakers in Richmond, with a proven record of pushing through bills to lure firms to Northern Virginia and extend tax relief to the elderly and disabled people. By contrast, M. Miller Baker, the Republican challenger, is a Washington lawyer who is a beginner on state and local issues and has no clear ideas for how to address funding shortfalls for transportation in this traffic-clogged district, which includes parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties and Alexandria.