U.S. SENATE PRIMARY

For Voters, It Often Boiled Down to Electability vs. Allegiance

Election officials in Fairfax County  --  including Jean Allen and Richard White, at the table, and Barbara and Omer Satterfield, at the voting booths  --  had a slow day because of low turnout.
Election officials in Fairfax County -- including Jean Allen and Richard White, at the table, and Barbara and Omer Satterfield, at the voting booths -- had a slow day because of low turnout. (By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

For most Northern Virginians voting in yesterday's Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, the question of whom to support often turned on why they were voting at all.

Those focused on beating incumbent Sen. George Allen in November tended to vote for the eventual winner, James Webb, a combat veteran and Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan who campaigned primarily on his opposition to the war in Iraq.

Those trying to pick the "better Democrat" -- the candidate they agree with on a broad range of social issues -- more often picked Harris Miller, a former Washington lobbyist and a Democratic Party activist.

"I just think that with Webb's background, he'll have more insight on how to get us out of Iraq," said voter Jason England, 54, a Desert Storm veteran from Woodbridge. "The major issue for me is that we're in a situation in the Middle East that we shouldn't be in, and with his military background, he's the right guy to get us out of there."

England echoed the views of dozens of voters interviewed yesterday after they chose a Democrat to face Allen in the fall. Turnout was low; by midday, some local election officials in Virginia reported that less than 1 percent of registered voters had gone to the polls.

Webb supporters viewed his combat experience and Republican credentials as assets in a polarized political landscape. They also saw him as more electable than Miller among conservative voters. Several said the endorsement by 2004 presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry (D) swayed them.

Webb "neutralizes some of the conservative issues that Allen might win on," said Ben Holt, 30, a lawyer from Arlington. "He has Southern roots, a Republican background, and being critical of the war will bring a lot of voters out."

Those who chose Miller, meanwhile, were more likely to say they voted according to their Democratic beliefs. They saw Webb as a one-issue candidate focused on Iraq, and they questioned his sincerity given his support, just six years ago, for both President Bush and Allen.

"Webb worked for Reagan, and he voted for Bush," said Marta Beckford, 79, a retired teacher from Ashburn. "Nobody who supported Bush will be with me. He is unspeakable."

Jason Rufner, 28, a financial adviser from Reston who said he votes in every election and tends to vote Democratic, said Miller struck him as more of a traditional Democrat on issues beyond Iraq such as health care.

"Jim Webb is a former Republican separated from the Republican Party solely based on his aversion to the war in Iraq," he said. "Harris Miller is a businessman who also has some compassion."

Similarly, first-time voter Brad Roland, 18, of Manassas concluded that he shared Miller's ideologies on "economic and social issues." Roland also said he didn't think Miller was too far to the left for the state's voters.

"Virginia is becoming more liberal," he said, "so we need to see more liberal candidates out there."

Virtually all primary voters agreed on one thing: They don't care for Allen. Carol Barnes, 59, a retired government employee from Chantilly, believes the one-term senator and former governor is a "cookie cutter" of Bush -- "and I don't think that's what we need right now." Barnes voted for Miller.

Suzanne Bethel, 36, of Arlington voted for "change," she said -- and chose Webb even though she wasn't thrilled with him. "It was just hold your nose and vote today," she said.

Finally, some voters wondered why they bothered, given Allen's popularity across Virginia, a Republican-leaning state.

Lifelong Democrat and Manassas resident Richard Geris, 68, voted for Webb because "he's got the best chance of unseating Allen."

"But," Geris added, "I don't give him a snowball's chance in hell of doing it."

Staff writers Michael Alison Chandler, Sandhya Somashekhar and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.


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