GOP Losing Its Edge in Fairfax

Fairfax Station resident Jane Blechman of the Democratic Women of Clifton calls potential voters to drum up support.
Fairfax Station resident Jane Blechman of the Democratic Women of Clifton calls potential voters to drum up support. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

An unexpected political drama has played out for the last 22 months at the community hall in Clifton, a town of million-dollar houses on five acres in western Fairfax County that twice backed President Bush: The Democratic Women of Clifton was born.

Democrats in this fortress of Republican strength had for years seemed endangered or in hiding. In 2004 though, Jane and George Barker noticed a profusion of signs for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry on their neighbors' lawns. "We started hearing from people that they were voting Democratic," said Barker, a stay-at-home mom married to a health-care planner.

At the group's inaugural tea in February 2005, she and fellow organizer Jane Blechman expected 15 women to show. They got 100. Today, there are 300 members.

After being sidelined in presidential politics for 40 years and state politics for more than a decade, Democrats in Virginia's largest county, home to one in seven votes in the state, are back on solid turf.

Fairfax has swung between red and blue in local elections and sends a mixed delegation to Richmond and Capitol Hill. Kerry carried it by 33,691 votes. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) easily won Fairfax last year. Former governor Mark R. Warner (D) found the county a fertile ground for votes in 2001. And several General Assembly seats turned from Republican hands to Democratic.

The tilt to blue is leaving a mark on the tight U.S. Senate race. Incumbent George Allen, a Republican who lives in the Mount Vernon area, is not contesting Fairfax as he did in 1993, when the county helped elect him governor, and 2000, when he narrowly lost it but went on to win his first Senate term.

Though he was in Fairfax yesterday, Allen has campaigned little in the county in the race's closing days, instead rallying his base in the Richmond suburbs and southwest Virginia and fighting for votes in Prince William and Loudoun counties. According to a recent Washington Post poll, Democratic challenger James Webb, who lives in Falls Church, leads Allen 60 percent to 36 percent in Fairfax, where the poll showed that the Iraq war, which Webb opposes, is unpopular.

This year, the county looks less like a battleground than a battle of margins that could determine Tuesday's winner, strategists on both sides say. Allen must minimize his losses in Fairfax to carry the state, while Webb needs to come close to Kaine's winning edge of 60,000 votes to offset Allen's strength outside Northern Virginia, analysts said.

"Fairfax was competitive when Senator Allen ran against [Democrat] Chuck Robb in 2000," Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams said. "That dynamic has not changed in terms of it being tough to win. . . . I'm not conceding Fairfax."

The signs aren't promising for Republicans.

The county isn't growing by much, just 3.8 percent from 2000 to 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau shows. But like postwar suburbs from Long Island to Orange County, Calif., it's aging and changing. Cul-de-sacs lined with multicar garages are redeveloping into narrow streets of townhouses, condos and single-family houses with tiny lawns. Government workers who once commuted to the city are joined by transplants from the city and elsewhere: tech workers, lawyers, engineers, real estate agents, consultants, waitresses, salespeople and construction workers. More are single: 24.1 percent of households last year, up from 21.4 in 2000, the census shows. With 40 percent of its residents now black, Asian and Hispanic, Fairfax is looking more like New York City.

"We're a suburb with urban characteristics," Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said.

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