Democratic Gains Are Predicted in Va. Assembly

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

RICHMOND -- Virginia Democrats are in a strong position to make substantial gains in the General Assembly in the Nov. 6 election, strategists in both parties say, setting the stage for an expensive battle this fall with Republicans, who are trying to keep control of the Senate and House of Delegates.

With the seats of all 140 delegates and senators up for election, Democrats say they are feeling increasingly confident that they can retake the Senate and pick up three to six seats in the House. Democrats need to gain four seats in the Senate and 11 in the House to grab power from the Republicans for the first time since 1999.

Across the state this weekend, candidates will swarm parades and festivals to mark the traditional Labor Day start of the fall campaign. Also at stake are dozens of contests for county offices, including the boards of supervisors and school boards in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

Democrats are energized by what they say was GOP leaders' slow response to the summer-long storm over abusive-driving fees and by President Bush's unpopularity in the polls. Shifting demographics in several GOP-held House and Senate districts have also improved their chances, Democrats say.

Republicans are hoping that passion over the illegal immigration issue will drive voters to back their candidates. GOP candidates will also make the argument that if the party retains control, it would mean lower taxes, controls on development and more education spending. Once voters "understand and hear that message, our candidates stand tall," said Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico).

But Republicans are on the defensive, even in some traditionally conservative areas of the state, in part because some voters are agitated with Bush and the war in Iraq.

"I'm glad I am not on the ballot this year," said J. Kenneth Klinge, a Republican strategist from Fairfax County. "It's not going to be an easy year."

Control of the Virginia Senate could be decided in Fairfax County, where three Republican incumbents -- Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, Ken Cuccinelli II and James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. -- have strong Democratic challengers. Several GOP-held House seats in Fairfax are also being targeted by the Democrats.

Popular Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner, a possible U.S. Senate candidate next year, plan to campaign for Democrats this fall. If Democrats take control of the state government, they would probably emphasize transportation, the environment and education.

"We are seeing a real opportunity for our candidates because Virginians have felt very good about how the state has been running under governor Warner and me," Kaine said. "You are going to see some real vigorous competition even in seats where in the past there hasn't been a lot of competition."

John H. Hager, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said the GOP plans to counter Kaine by mobilizing its core supporters, despite the national political environment. Former governor James S. Gilmore III and former senator George Allen, who also might be future statewide candidates, will probably assist Republican General Assembly candidates.

"Of course there is a fatigue factor with Republicans in Washington," Hager said of the Bush administration, which has been in power since 2001. "What we've got to do is take leadership and develop a message that motivates our troops."

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