By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 8, 2007
RICHMOND, Nov. 7 -- A day after the Democrats took control of the Virginia Senate and gained seats in the House, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said he now has "some friends" in the General Assembly and has achieved his goal of bringing "more balance" to a political landscape that was dominated by Republicans just six years ago.
The governor said he hoped the change will mean that the parts of his agenda that stalled during his first two years in office might advance in his last two. He listed additional investments in education, mental health and environmental protection as programs that might move forward.
Tuesday's Democratic gains also raised speculation about whether Virginia could vote for a Democrat in the presidential race next year for the first time since 1964. The state has chosen two successive Democratic governors and elected a Democratic U.S. senator last year. The party's probable U.S. Senate candidate next year is former governor Mark R. Warner, one of Virginia's most popular political figures.
All of Tuesday's Democratic gains occurred in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the state's most populous areas and its economic linchpins. Political analysts said those regions might also be aligning to become a force in statewide politics that favors Democrats.
Bill Beaman, editor in chief of Campaigns & Elections Magazine, said the GOP cannot win statewide elections if Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia voters are unified, even if rural parts of the state remain solidly Republican.
"You can almost see Virginia being a microcosm of the national red-blue divide," Beaman said. "What this election showed is on a number of issues, Virginia tends to be more red than blue. But what has got to worry Republicans is some of those light-red voters now feel more comfortable voting Democratic. . . . The fact they are losing these middle-of-the-road voters has got to worry the GOP."
Even Sen. John W. Warner, long the GOP standard-bearer in Virginia, worried about his party.
"The Republican Party of Virginia has drifted from the time-honored principle of the big tent," he said in a statement last night. "In my judgment, yesterday's election results demonstrate that Virginia voters value greatly political leaders who are willing to reach reasonable solutions and tackle big issues ranging from the budget to immigration to the environment and transportation."
In Norfolk, Democrat Ralph S. Northam unseated Republican Sen. D. Nick Rerras, who was criticized for once tying mental illness to demonic possession. In another Senate race in Newport News, Democrat John C. Miller defeated Republican Patricia B. "Tricia" Stall, who once advocated for an end to government involvement in education.
In Fairfax County, a Democratic tide also unseated Republican Sens. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis and J.K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr., who conceded Wednesday. "I got sent home by the people," O'Brien said.
Democrats took at least 21 of 40 seats in the Senate but fell seven seats short of taking back the House of Delegates. In the state's closest race, Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) led Democrat Janet S. Oleszek by 92 votes as county officials canvassed the ballots Wednesday. She said she will decide later this month whether to ask for a recount.
"The lesson learned from [Tuesday's] election is to govern from the middle," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), who noted that the Democrats' four-seat House gain is their largest in that chamber since 1975, after the Watergate scandal.
U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Virginia is "a growing, dynamic state" that will continue to be competitive in elections. But Cantor added that he is confident that the state GOP will quickly rebound from Tuesday's losses. Cantor said several GOP candidates, including Fairfax Dels. Timothy D. Hugo and Thomas Davis Rust, were successful Tuesday because they avoided being "put in a conservative versus liberal box."
"Republicans won when they had positive, practical solutions to the everyday problems that people face," Cantor said. "I think that is the best signal for how the party goes forward in '08 and '09."
The changed political landscape could also enhance the visibility of the House, which is still controlled by the GOP (54-44, with two independents) and could become the incubator for the party's ideas and strategies for staging a comeback.
Kaine reached out to House and Senate GOP leaders Wednesday in phone calls to heal the divisions caused by a fall campaign marked by negative, nasty races. He said the election "means the legislature is going to line up a lot closer to where the Virginia electorate is."
"I am going to have to make my case on whatever I want to do, whether a legislator is a Democrat or Republican, but we have got the legislature closer to a balance point," he said.
Several House Republicans said they are unlikely to cooperate with Kaine in his final two years in office, raising the prospect of an impasse.
"It just doesn't do any good to be bipartisan with Tim Kaine. He'll cut your hands off the next day," said Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), chairman of the House Republican Caucus, referring to Kaine's aggressive effort to target GOP legislators in this year's elections.
Instead of viewing Tuesday's outcome as a setback for conservatives, House leaders say they will now focus on their priorities instead of the governor's. House Republicans want to curb illegal immigration, reduce property taxes and spend more money on school construction.
"The Senate Democrats will push a more liberal agenda . . . [but] they have to get permission to pass anything," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem).
Senate Democrats, who have been out of power since 1997, said Wednesday that they probably will promote their agenda, including revisiting whether more money is needed to pay for transportation improvements and helping Kaine pass an initiative to provide pre-kindergarten education.
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who is likely to become majority leader, predicted that Democrats will focus on results instead of "grandstanding."
Acknowledging that Saslaw and other Senate Democrats did not like the GOP transportation plan Kaine signed into law this spring, Kaine said he will work with them to fix it.
"Nothing's off the table," said Kaine, including repealing the controversial fees on bad drivers.
The changes in power mean Northern Virginia will gain influence in the General Assembly. At least six Northern Virginia Democrats could become committee chairmen, including Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), who is in line to lead the Finance Committee.
The change in the overall dynamic of the Senate, however, might not be that noticeable. Moderate Republicans have controlled the Senate for the past seven years. And because several conservatives were replaced by Democrats in Tuesday's elections, many analysts predict Senate Democrats and Republicans will work closely together.
But House Republicans now become the party's dominant voice in government and will play a critical role in helping the party develop a plan to attempt a comeback before the 2009 governor's race. "With the House acting as the lead, they can stop bad things and be a firewall, or they can be the one that generates new ideas for Virginia," said Cantor, a former delegate.
Either way, the party will remain divided as moderates and conservatives jockey for power.
"The state Republican Party is not going to change, and I don't think they are going to have a majority in the House after the next election," said John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., a prominent Northern Virginia business leader and Republican who has been disenchanted with the conservative wing of his party for years. "They have completely failed to understand Virginia is changing, and they are destroying it."
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who ran unopposed this year, said he's not worried about losing the House in 2009. "We still have an eight-seat majority," he said. "They will never take the majority. Never."