By Robert Barnes and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 2, 2006
It was a special election and almost no one showed up, but a Democratic victory in Tuesday's state Senate race in Loudoun County reinforced a developing political realignment in Northern Virginia and could influence political battles in Richmond over transportation and growth.
Prominent leaders of both parties said that Democrat Mark R. Herring's overwhelming victory in the previously Republican district showed that the issues espoused by Democrat Timothy M. Kaine in his November gubernatorial triumph -- education, transportation, controlling growth -- continue to resonate with suburban voters.
"Tim Kaine and the Democrats are talking about issues that are of concern to voters," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Fairfax County Republican, who has repeatedly urged his party to put forth more moderate candidates. "I think voters are telling Republicans that we're not seeing the choices we want to see. . . . There are some warning signs for the party here, and it's not just a Northern Virginia problem."
But the signs certainly have been showcased in Loudoun, home to Dulles International Airport and a nest of high-tech companies that have helped make it Virginia's fastest-growing jurisdiction. In November, Kaine scored a surprising victory there and in Prince William County, and Herring used Kaine's playbook to get more than 60 percent of the vote against Supervisor Mick Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run).
It was the kind of low-turnout special election that Republicans used to win by emphasizing social issues and bringing out the party's dedicated base.
"Over the last 24 hours, between the State of the Union [response] and this Loudoun election, I've felt pretty good," said Kaine, who delivered the Democratic answer to President Bush's address Tuesday night.
Kaine said his campaign targeted suburban voters, including those in Loudoun, "for a reason." He said they are open to a Democratic message that stressed "development, land use, transportation. Those folks feel it, understand it, worry about it more than anyone else."
Kaine said he expects that the Loudoun results will be heard in Richmond, where he is pushing the General Assembly to give more authority to local governments to reject residential development unless there are adequate roads for the newcomers and to come up with additional state money for transportation projects.
"I think it's going to make it easier," he said. "I picked that buzz up in the halls already today."
And there was buzz in Loudoun, too -- especially among those on the Republican-dominated Board of Supervisors.
"It will be a very interesting two years," said Supervisor Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run), who was elected in 2003 on a message of keeping taxes down and allowing "responsible" growth. Waters plans to seek a second term in 2007 and sees Tuesday's election as evidence that all Republicans have to work harder to resonate with Loudoun voters.
Staton explained in an interview after his loss that his challenge had been to persuade voters that he could tackle growth problems as well as a Democrat. Staton has opposed strict new growth controls in the rural west of Loudoun, and he is more open than others to allowing high-density development in the Dulles South corridor. But he also has supported raising developer impact fees to cover such costs of growth as schools and fire stations, and he promised on the campaign trail to manage growth and improve traffic.
Staton lost every single precinct, even his own. Every voter interviewed Tuesday who named growth and congestion as their top priority said they were voting for Herring. Those who voted for Staton liked him for other reasons: his conservatism, his affiliation with the GOP, his support for the president.
Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax) said voters moving into Loudoun can no longer be taken for granted by conservative Republicans. "There are so many new voters who don't know which party they are in and are waiting to be impressed," he said. "The Democrats did a better job of impressing them."
And some newcomers are simply predisposed to vote Democratic. "I'm the blue dot on the map moving out," said Justin Hoffman, 34, a technical writer who moved to the eastern Loudoun neighborhood of Carisbrooke less than a year ago from Arlington.
Voters in Virginia do not register according to party, but Kaine said his campaign's polling last fall saw a drop in those who identified themselves as Republicans and a slight increase in those who said they were Democrats or independents. He attributes that mostly to their views on national issues.
Already since November, Democrats have picked up a House of Delegates seat previously held by Republicans, in Lynchburg. Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the results show that a pragmatic Democratic message works. "I think it's a huge wakeup call, honest to God," Connolly said. "I think last night's election cannot be overstated in terms of the message to Richmond."
Meanwhile, the Virginia Republican Party has formed a "Northern Virginia Strike Force" to address the party's recent problems in the region. Its first meeting is tonight.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.