Tide May Turn in Hampton Roads

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

NORFOLK -- In 1999, political novice Nick Rerras ousted a longtime and powerful state senator. In 2003, he easily won reelection.

But this year, the Republican finds himself in his toughest race yet, one that may cost him the Hampton Roads seat he has held for eight years.

The contest is one of a handful of costly, contentious and closely watched races in Virginia that could switch from Republican to Democrat on Election Day, possibly changing the balance of power in the Senate. Other key races include an open seat in Hampton Roads and three in Northern Virginia, where Republican incumbents are trying to hold onto their jobs.

Leaders from both parties describe the contest between the conservative Republican and his Democratic opponent, newcomer Ralph Northam, as neck-in-neck less than two weeks before voters go to the polls Nov. 6.

"It's not a great time to have an 'R' next to your name,'' said Phil Cox, a consultant for Rerras and other Republicans in Virginia, including Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell. "The national brand has suffered."

The seat's surprising vulnerability this year stems from a host of factors: A district, like those in other parts of Virginia, that is gradually turning bluer; national fatigue with Republicans caused by an unpopular president and war; and Rerras's own controversial comments that include tying mental illness to demonic possession.

"It's always been a borderline district. But the dynamics have changed,'' said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), who is coordinating an effort to preserve the Republican majority in the Senate. "The race is a dead heat, a statistical tie."

With the seats of all 140 delegates and senators up for election in 10 days, 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.

They are outraising and outspending Republicans in most races in the state as both parties are spending a record amount of money to attack each other in colorful campaign mailers and on radio and TV in hard-fought, negative campaigns.

Democrats had always expected to have a shot in Rerras's district, but they had not expected to even run a candidate for the nearby 1st District seat, held for more than a decade by Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News), a moderate and leader of the influential Senate Transportation Committee.

But conservative anti-tax activist Tricia Stall shocked the Republican establishment when she defeated Williams in a bitter primary in June. Democrat John Miller is running against Stall, who most Republican leaders are reluctantly supporting because they need the seat to hold onto the majority.

The race is considered too close to call, but there is a distinct possibility Democrats could win the Republican-leaning district that includes Newport News and Hampton for the first time in years. "Obviously, we got a gift in the Republican primary,'' said Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the Senate minority leader who hopes to become the majority leader if the Democrats win control.

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