Potts Plots Swan Song: Helping Democrats

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007

RICHMOND

State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) might have one final snub planned for a Republican Party he accuses of drifting too far to the right over the past two decades.

Even though it would result in some of his closest friends being stripped of their power, Potts might help Democrats pick up the four seats they need to regain control of the state Senate in the Nov. 6 elections.

Potts, a maverick who describes himself as an Eisenhower Republican, has been frustrating conservative Republicans for years.

As chairman of the Education and Health Committee, Potts has blocked much of the agenda of social conservatives, including measures to restrict abortion rights.

He was one of two Senate Republicans to vote against this year's GOP-brokered transportation plan because it did not include a statewide tax increase. And Potts launched an independent bid for governor in 2005 instead of supporting the party nominee, Jerry W. Kilgore, a conservative.

Now, Potts says he is considering endorsing a Democrat to replace him in a Republican-leaning district that includes Winchester, Clark and Frederick counties and parts of Loudoun and Fauquier counties.

In an interview, Potts said the two candidates vying for the Republican nomination, Jill Holtzman Vogel and Mark Tate, are too conservative.

"They are to the right of Attila the Hun and way out of the mainstream," said Potts, noting how the two oppose abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

Potts noted that Tate, former vice mayor of Middleburg, was indicted last week on charges of election fraud and perjury. Tate says he is not guilty and is the victim of an overly aggressive prosecutor.

Potts called Vogel a "daddy's girl," an apparent reference to how her father, William B. Holtzman, is helping to fund her campaign. He owns Holtzman Oil Corp.

By comparison, Potts called the Democratic candidate, Karen Schultz, a former member of the Winchester School Board, "very capable" and "very articulate."

Potts said he won't make his final decision on an endorsement until after the June 12 primary.

Vogel was unavailable for comment. Tate said he won't be surprised if Potts endorses Schultz. "I think it hurts her as much as it helps her," Tate said.

Loudoun Republicans have told reporters Schultz will be a formidable opponent if she secures Potts's endorsement.

Although his influence with core Republican voters is limited, Potts has demonstrated an ability to draw independent voters to the polls. During his bid for reelection in 2003, Potts had strong support from teachers and doctors, two groups that can be influential in an off-year election, which historically has low turnout.

A competitive race in the 27th District will present new pressures for the state Republican Party.

For most of the spring, the conventional wisdom was that Democrats would try to pick up the Senate by targeting three Fairfax County Republicans -- Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. and Ken Cuccinelli II-- as well as Sen. Nick Rerras (Norfolk). Democrats are also hoping former delegate Albert C. Pollard Jr. (D) picks up the seat of retiring Senate President John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland).

Republicans think their chances to hold Chichester's seat greatly improved two weeks ago when GOP activists nominated Richard Stuart, a moderate, to go against up Pollard.

The odds are stacked against Democrats; most observers think it is highly unlikely that Davis, O'Brien and Cuccinelli could all be defeated in the same year.

The race to replace Potts could give Democrats an added cushion in their quest to regain the majority. Schultz would still face an uphill battle to win the 27th District. Its voters supported Republican Jerry W. Kilgore over Timothy M. Kaine (D) in the 2005 gubernatorial race and George Allen over James Webb (D) last year for U.S. Senate.

Potts counters that the district is not as conservative as some think. He said Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner (D) carried Winchester, although they lost the district.

The 27th, which includes some of the fastest-growing counties in the state, could give Democrats an opportunity to test whether the migration of suburban voters out from Washington could start changing the politics of the traditionally conservative northern Shenandoah Valley.

Like their counterparts in other states, Virginia's exurbs have proved to be a trove of voters for Republican candidates in state and presidential elections. Potts said President Bush is an "albatross around the neck" of Republican candidates this year.

"This district is by no means a slam-dunk for Republicans," said Potts, who predicts there will be 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans in the Senate after Nov. 6.

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