Fairfax Races Seen As Crucial To Senate

(By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

There is no fiercer battleground this election season than Northern Virginia, where control of the state Senate could be largely determined by the outcome Nov. 6 of three hard-fought, high-dollar and closely watched contests in Fairfax County.

But these campaigns will do more than decide who runs the 40-member Senate. They will demonstrate whether Republicans will continue -- or can halt -- their dramatic decline in popularity in Virginia and whether that trend is likely to persist in crucial 2008, a presidential election year.

A Democratic sweep, meanwhile, would transfer unprecedented power to a handful of senior Northern Virginia lawmakers, giving the region a level of influence in Richmond on issues such as transportation, growth and education that would match its population and economic might.

And it might all hinge on Fairfax, where three Republican state senators are fighting for their political lives in districts that have rejected the GOP in the past two statewide elections and that are now, by all accounts, undeniably blue.

"This is the toughest race from start to finish that I've had," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II, a conservative Republican from western Fairfax battling Democrat Janet S. Oleszek, a member of the county School Board. "The Democrats' success has been driven by the leftward swing of Northern Virginia. That's where it's come from. It's natural for them to focus up here."

Democrats are indeed focusing on the three Fairfax seats, and a handful of others across the state. With Republicans in control of the Senate by a margin of 23 to 17, Democrats must pick up three seats to share power and four to control the chamber. As a result, they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads and glossy mailings in Northern Virginia, and they are sending in such prominent Democrats as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner to promote their candidates.

No one disputes that the demographic advantage goes to the Democrats. Republican Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis's district, which includes Fairfax City, Vienna and Oakton, is so Democratic-leaning that not a single precinct voted for former U.S. senator George Allen last year in his race against Sen. James Webb. Even Republican state Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr.'s district, which includes the longtime GOP stronghold of Springfield and a sliver of Prince William County, gave Webb a 10-point win.

Devolites Davis faces Democrat J. Chapman Petersen, a former delegate and Fairfax City Council member. O'Brien faces George L. Barker, a health services planner.

All three challengers seek to portray the incumbents as out of touch with the public. They say that if Republicans retain control in the Senate, it is likely to tilt more to the right as a result of the number of conservative-leaning Republicans on the ballot this year. Republicans seeking to retain control of the Senate deny that charge, saying that a Democratic takeover would tilt the state too far left, leading to anti-business legislation, higher taxes and a death penalty moratorium.

"If the Republicans come home and the independents recognize the difference between Republican leadership and Democratic leadership and continue to break the way they've broken in the past, then we'll retain the majority," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach). "It's going to be close, but I think we'll retain the majority."

Other Republicans say it is fair to speculate that the Senate would become more conservative. They say one reason the GOP has performed so poorly in recent elections is that voters are looking for middle ground.

"It's scary for us," said state Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News), who lost a primary battle this year to a conservative Republican and whose seat, as a result, is at risk of going to a Democrat. "Certainly the perception in the public's eye is that we've narrowed our base so much that we can't claim a majority. We've got to appeal to a broader group of people than just people who will sign a no-tax pledge or be pro-life."

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