VA. SENATE RACE

Changing Pattern Of N.Va. Voting Cited as Pivotal

James Webb, shown on election night, won in Loudoun and Prince William counties, as Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine did last year.
James Webb, shown on election night, won in Loudoun and Prince William counties, as Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine did last year. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Was it Republican Sen. George Allen's mistakes, or a Democratic tide? Northern Virginia's dominance, or a new kind of suburban voter changing the commonwealth's politics?

Or maybe the virtual tie between Allen and Democratic Senate nominee James Webb in the state's hugely important Senate contest was simply fitting, the latest evidence that Virginia may be emerging on the national scene as a state up for grabs despite the fact that no Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson has been able to grab it.

There is reason for optimism and concern on both sides about Tuesday's results. Democrats cautiously celebrated the possibility of bumping off a nationally known senator previously thought invulnerable and watched Northern Virginia's booming suburbs continue to fall in line.

"I think we're getting there," said Peter Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster who worked for Webb and was an architect of Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's campaign last year. "I think it's a very competitive state."

He said that in his recent polls, Virginians who were asked to identify their political leanings split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans. In previous years, he said, Republicans had an advantage of up to 6 points.

Republicans consoled themselves yesterday by agreeing that if they can get through this Democratic year, they can get through anything. They pointed to Allen's strong showing in the rest of the state and rejected the notion that the 2006 elections were a valid gauge of change in the state.

The Allen campaign was too unusual for comparison, they said; even Kaine, at an election eve rally for Webb, said that what had started as a "road to coronation" for Allen turned into "Dante's Inferno."

"I think Virginia is for the most part a pretty solid Republican state," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), elected last year in a tight race and considered a likely candidate for governor in 2009. He rattled off Republican successes: at least one U.S. senator, or both, depending on the outcome of Allen's race; eight of 11 members of the state's congressional delegation; control of both houses of the state legislature; and two of three statewide-elected officeholders.

"Having said that," he continued, "if you're a Republican and look at last year's election and then this one, what's making this competitive is the changing voting patterns in the Northern Virginia suburbs."

Every discussion of politics in the Old Dominion eventually comes back to Northern Virginia, and numbers show why. Anchored by the state's largest jurisdiction and home to two of the nation's fastest-growing counties, there are nearly 400,000 more voting-age adults in the region than when Allen won in 2000, and they were not kind to his candidacy Tuesday.

Even when he ran in 2000 against a Northern Virginian, former senator Charles S. Robb, Allen lost by only 3 percentage points and 30,000 votes. This year, Webb beat Allen by 116,000 votes and 17 points in the region. About half of that margin came from Fairfax County, the state's biggest place and an important symbol of the change in the state's politics.

"Fairfax used to be the bellwether for the state," Brodnitz said. "Now it's considered a critical piece of the Democratic map."


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