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In the Ballot Booths, No Fixation on Immigration

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Voters across Virginia chose candidates in state and local elections yesterday not out of anger over illegal immigration but based on party affiliation, a preference for moderation and strong views on such key issues as residential growth and traffic congestion.

With a few notable exceptions, the trend benefited Democrats and not those who campaigned the loudest for tough sanctions against illegal immigrants.

Fairfax County continued its transformation into solid Democratic territory, with as many as five legislative seats poised to fall out of Republican control. In Loudoun County, Democrats who campaigned on a promise to slow residential growth took over the county board. Even in Prince William County, where the board's chairman, Corey L. Stewart (R), won easily on a vow to crack down against illegal immigrants, the volatile issue was tempered by the victory of state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Manassas), who had been painted as soft on the issue.

The returns provided the sharpest evidence yet that Democratic gains in recent state elections represented more than a temporary dip in Republicans' popularity. Yesterday's initial results showed that a more long-term structural realignment may be occurring and that voters are increasingly drawn by Democrats' promises to improve schools and ease traffic and away from Republican conservatism on such issues as taxes and social policy, particularly in fast-growing Northern Virginia.

"I did not think that immigration in and of itself would carry the day," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax), who would become majority leader under Democratic control. "The results are proving that, while immigration is a concern to people -- and it should be -- it is not returning the votes that they thought that it would."

Greg Blevins, a 17-year resident of Prince William, might have been a typical voter deciding yesterday's crucial contests. Although concerned about enforcement of immigration law, Blevins said he voted for both Democrats and Republicans because his main concerns also include roads and schools, for which he is willing to pay higher taxes. "I want to see tax money spent where it is raised," he said.

The most significant impact of yesterday's results will be in the state Senate, where power will shift dramatically to Northern Virginia. Colgan is in line to become chairman of the Finance Committee, gaining the power to increase spending for Northern Virginia colleges and universities, hospitals, roads, cultural institutions and more. Other regional lawmakers are in line to lead committees, making them able to set the agenda on such topics as controlling development, redrawing political district lines after the next census and recalculating school aid formulas to benefit the region.

In the House of Delegates, Republicans will still hold a significant if smaller majority.

State Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said his party didn't drum up the immigration issue out of nowhere. Candidates were forced to talk about it by constituents who wanted the issue addressed, he said.

Republican losses yesterday, even in solidly GOP districts, he said, were more often the result of a candidate being too conservative for the moderate direction most voters want Virginia to take.

"If you want to take a look at who's winning in the Republican Party, it's middle-of-the-road Republicans who have not moved too far to the right that they're considered extremists," he said.

Stolle conceded that Democrats carried a huge advantage this election year in part because of the role of such popular leaders as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner, who have been touring the state pressing voters to seek the same change in the legislature that they sought when they voted them into office in the past two gubernatorial races.

Fairfax Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, who easily defeated Republican Gary H. Baise to win a second term, said the Democratic effort in his county was "unprecedented," punctuated yesterday morning by the effort of hundreds of volunteers who worked across the county hanging signs, making calls and knocking on doors.

"That's a culmination of a coordinated campaign effort that's been going on since the spring," he said. "We had 12 full-time staffers working in Fairfax County. We had a trailer at the back of our headquarters with 20 or 30 computers. We made 10,700 phone calls yesterday alone."

One advantage for Democrats was the poor approval ratings of President Bush and the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. Another was the growing tide of Democratic-leaning voters moving into fast-growing Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, called it the "decline of the Republican brand" and credited it with rallying Democratic activists, bringing forward credible Democratic candidates and attracting hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to Democratic campaigns.

Democratic supporters of J. Chapman Petersen, who beat state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, the Republican incumbent, in Fairfax, said they had long hoped that a candidate would come along who could match her on the issues. "Chap's a good Democrat," said voter John C. Wasley IV, a librarian who has lived in the area most of his life. "Transportation and the environment were the big issues for me, and Chap's on the right side of both of them."

Republicans were noticeably less organized in the final weeks of the campaign, with fewer and smaller rallies across the state and with their top leaders, including party chairman John H. Hager, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, barely in public view in the final days.

What is still unknown is the effect of yesterday's results on 2008, another tumultuous election year when Virginians will choose a replacement for retiring U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R) and when the state might even be in play in the presidential contest. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn't gained a majority of Virginians' votes since 1964.

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