By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Democratic challenger James Webb held a slim lead over Republican Sen. George Allen early today in Virginia's U.S. Senate race, a dramatic and nasty battle that almost certainly will be decided by a recount next month.
With more than 99 percent of the votes tallied by about 2 a.m. today, Webb claimed victory with a lead of about 7,800 votes among the more than 2.3 million cast -- a difference of three-tenths of a percent. Some absentee ballots in Loudoun County, Richmond and Virginia Beach were still being counted in the early morning.
Meanwhile, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions and returned all the state's incumbents to the U.S. House. Republicans won in two local elections in Prince William County.
Webb captured a huge amount of support in Northern Virginia, while Allen was beating him across large swaths of the rest of the state. Those differences confirmed a widening gulf between voters in the Washington suburbs and the rest of the state, which also drove approval of the same-sex marriage amendment over Northern Virginia's opposition.
Shortly after 1 a.m. today, after he took the lead in the count, Webb told supporters at a Tysons Corner hotel: "I'd also like to say the votes are in, and we won. This is a great moment for all of us."
But Allen did not show signs of giving up. In Richmond, Allen emerged after midnight to tell his supporters to "Stay strong for freedom . . . and accuracy in elections will prevail." He said he would call on them in the days ahead.
"This has been an interesting election, and the election continues," he said.
When Webb claimed victory, he did it as a Marine. He came into the Vienna hotel ballroom accompanied by his brother Gary playing the bagpipes, and about a dozen of his Marine buddies emerged from behind the stage. He stood at attention, ramrod straight, as they filed in.
The nail-biter left the candidates in limbo as their campaign advisers began to talk about a recount, which could consume Virginia for weeks and raise doubts about which party will control the U.S. Senate. A recount would seem a fittingly dramatic end to a campaign that was filled with scandals, personal revelations and racial accusations.
"I guess I know how I'll be spending my Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations," joked Jean Jensen, the secretary of the State Board of Elections, who a year ago oversaw a recount that awarded the state attorney general's job to the Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, who had a 360-vote edge. Gov. Timothy D. Kaine (D) controls the Board of Elections.
Under Virginia law, a margin of less than a half-percent can trigger a recount which the state pays for. A losing candidate can also request -- and pay for -- a recount if the margin is less than 1 percent. As of early Wednesday, the state-financed recount seemed all but certain.
A recount would not officially start until the state board of elections certifies the election-day results, which is scheduled to happen on the fourth Monday in November. Results of a recount may not come until December.
Webb jumped into the lead early, but by 10 p.m., Allen claimed a tiny advantage. As the night stretched on, the margin between the two widened and shrunk, adding to the drama. Then, around midnight, Webb jumped into the lead, after some absentee ballots were counted in Fairfax County.
An independent candidate, Gail Parker, claimed about 25,000 votes, or a little more than 1 percent. Parker, who campaigned as an Independent Green candidate, spent almost no money on her campaign and made increasing support for building mass transit the exclusive issue of her campaign. Analysts said it was unclear whose votes her presence might have affected more.
Despite steady rain in many parts of the state, election officials said turnout across Virginia was high and could end up rivaling participation usually seen during presidential contests. Nearly half of the state's 4.5 million registered voters cast ballots.
Webb appeared to be doing well among women, African Americans and independents, according to exit polls. Allen had a significant lead among white voters, religious voters and veterans.
In other state elections, 13-term Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) fought off a well-funded challenge by Democratic health care expert Judy Feder in the 10th Congressional District of Northern Virginia. Feder had raised more money than Wolf and made his support of President Bush an issue.
U.S. Representatives Thomas M. Davis III (R) and James P. Moran (D) were easily reelected. In Virginia Beach, Democratic challenger Phil Kellam was leading in a close race against freshman Republican Rep. Thelma D. Drake in a nationally watched contest.
In Prince William, Republican Corey A. Stewart beat Democrat Sharon E. Pandak in the race for chairman of the Board of County Supervisors. And in Manassas, Republican Jackson H. Miller beat Democrat Jeanette M. Rishell for the House seat held by the late Harry Parrish (R).
Chris Zimmerman (D) was reelected Arlington County Board chairman.
For Allen, 54, a win would represent a stunning recovery. Six months ago, he was actively exploring a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. But his Senate reelection campaign faltered after he called a Webb volunteer of Indian American descent a "macaca," which is a slur in some cultures.
Webb, 60, is a former Marine and first-time candidate who rarely seemed at ease on the campaign trail. In his campaign, Webb vowed to change the debate surrounding the Iraq war, which he opposed.
Voters yesterday expressed anger over President Bush's policies, especially in Iraq, with 52 percent saying they don't like the war and 53 percent disapproving of the job Bush is doing, according to the poll of 1,986 Virginia voters conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. The responses suggested that Allen's staunch support for the president cost him some votes.
"Two words," said Mark Early, 46, an independent from Arlington County, explaining his vote for Webb. " 'Neuter Bush.' With a Democratic Congress, the best we can do is limit the damage."
A majority of voters said they believe that Allen respects racial minorities despite accusations that he used racial slurs. But some voters also said they were turned off by Allen's macaca comment.
"That pretty much did it for me," said Sheryl Mason, 42, of Prince William, who voted for Webb. "You kind of think that if he makes that kind of slip-up . . . what's he been saying in private?"
But Allen was apparently successful in convincing voters that their taxes would go up if Webb was elected to the Senate. Almost two-thirds of voters questioned in the exit polls who said taxes were an extremely important issue said they voted for Allen.
"I really don't want my taxes raised," said Anne Harrell, 39, who voted for Allen in her Annandale precinct. "It's the money that's driving me."
When Allen formally announced his reelection bid in April, the biggest challenge appeared to be how to balance his Senate campaign with his presidential ambitions. Allen, who had just returned from speeches in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, declined to say whether he would serve a full six-year term if he were reelected.
"When we get to the future, I'll determine the future," he told reporters that day.
At the time, Webb was locked in a bitter primary with Fairfax lobbyist Harris Miller, a favorite among the Democratic Party establishment. But Webb's campaign was already focused on Allen.
"We'd like to think this seat in the Senate means more than a place holder for George Allen," Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd said then.
Webb beat Miller in June, but heading into the summer, he trailed Allen by 16 percentage points in one poll. Worse for Webb, his campaign was virtually broke, and he had little patience for the hard work of fundraising. With no experience in politics, Webb appeared stiff on the stump. Democrats said privately that they doubted their candidate could win.
"If you had asked anybody about this election on Aug. 10, they would have told you it was effectively over," said Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.
But everything changed Aug. 11, when Allen mocked the Indian American Webb volunteer, who was shooting video of Allen at a campaign stop in Breaks, Va., a rural town near the Kentucky border.
The videotape sped across the country on the video-sharing site YouTube, creating negative headlines for more than a week. Indian American groups called Allen a bully, and he became fodder for late-night comedians.
The macaca incident raised fresh questions about Allen's racial sensitivity, an issue that has dogged him since the beginning of his political career. News organizations began probing anew his fondness for the Confederate flag while serving as governor.
The fallout from the macaca incident knocked Allen and his campaign off stride for weeks. He hit back, helping organize a news conference with several female U.S. Naval Academy graduates who said a 1979 magazine article by Webb had contributed to an atmosphere of men harassing women at Annapolis.
But even with headlines about Webb's article, which said a dormitory at the academy was "a horny woman's dream," Allen's lead had been whittled to four points by early September, which meant the race was a virtual dead heat.
Just as he appeared to be recovering, Allen made another headline-producing gaffe at a debate Sept. 19 in Fairfax County. Asked by a television reporter about reports that his mother was Jewish, Allen replied angrily, chiding the reporter for "making aspersions" about his religious background.
The next week, Allen was hit with accusations from former college football teammates and other past acquaintances who said they recalled him using the "n-word" during and after college. Allen denied it, but other accusations continued to surface for more than a week. A poll at the end of September showed the race tied, with each at 43 percent.
The Allen controversies and the tightening poll numbers gave Democrats hope, and money began pouring into Webb's campaign. The day after a debate on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sept. 17, Webb raised $100,000 in online contributions. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee began pouring money into Webb's campaign, which eventually topped $6 million.
By October, both candidates and their national-party backers were in attack mode, airing tough ads on television and radio.
Late in the month, the Allen campaign leaked accusations about sexually explicit passages in Webb's novels to the Drudge Report, an Internet gossip site, and the Fox News Channel.
Allen's attacks on Webb's attitudes toward women took a toll. Polls in mid-October showed Allen with a slight lead and Webb's support among women below that of previous Democrats in Virginia.
But the Oct. 27 attack on Webb's novels seemed to backfire, as several polls taken just afterward indicated momentum for Webb.
By yesterday, the Virginia Senate race had become one of the most closely watched in the nation, as Allen struggled in the campaign's final days to overcome a politically devastating summer.
But longtime political observers in Virginia said Allen's long history in the state and especially his term as a popular governor made the contest a difficult one to predict.
"George Allen stood a 50-50 chance of being the Republican nominee for president," Holsworth said. "Less than three months later, he [stood] a 50-50 chance of retaining his own seat. It's been simply astonishing to watch."