Democrats Seek Vindication of Loudoun's Shift

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Democratic State Sen. Mark Herring's landslide victory last year, in a district that had for years been led by a Republican, fueled speculation that traditionally red Loudoun County, like the rest of Northern Virginia, was turning purple -- maybe even outright blue.

But observers say the real test for Herring, and of whether political change has really reached Loudoun, could come Nov. 6.

Herring's ascendance in the 33rd District -- which includes populous eastern Loudoun and a part of western Fairfax County -- occurred during a special January election to fill the seat vacated when Republican William C. Mims became chief deputy attorney general. Politics was far from people's mind. The campaign lasted just weeks, and turnout was 13.7 percent.

Next month, opposed by conservative Republican Patricia Phillips, a nutrition consultant from Sterling and former head of the Virginia chapter of the Christian group Concerned Women for America, Herring will face a full-scale electoral test.

His performance might serve as a bellwether of Democrats' lasting prospects in a county once thought of as reliably conservative but undergoing rapid and dramatic change.

"Here's an opportunity for the Democrats to achieve a solid hold on a formerly Republican seat, and that would be quite an accomplishment," said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "Just several years ago, nobody would have been thinking about having this conversation. It was widely assumed that Loudoun County was solid Republican and would stay that way."

Since 2000, Loudoun's population has grown by more than 50 percent, Census Bureau estimates show, particularly in the eastern half.

With the boom came an influx of new political views, ethnic backgrounds and congestion formerly unimagined in the once-rural county.

So Democrats had ample reason to view Herring's victory, which came amid wins in Loudoun for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) as well as a two-seat gain for their party among Loudoun's five state delegates, as a sure sign that Northern Virginia's partisan shift had finally touched Loudoun.

"That was an extremely important election, not only to Mark but to state Democrats," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

But Republicans maintain that describing Herring's victory as a permanent shift is an overstatement.

"A special election is never a determiner of a trend in the community," said Loudoun County Supervisor Mick Staton (Sugarland), who was defeated by Herring last year in the state Senate race and is running for reelection to the county board.

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