By Sandhya Somashekhar and Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Two counties that once largely moved in tandem in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia diverged sharply Tuesday, when voters sought to curtail growth and continued a Democratic trend in Loudoun and solidified a conservative tilt in Prince William.
Loudoun voters ousted the Republican majority on the Board of Supervisors, selecting five Democrats who refused money from developers and promised to ease traffic congestion, high taxes and other effects of rapid growth. The traditionally GOP-leaning county, which as recently as 2004 sent only Republicans to Richmond, also reelected four moderate Democrats to the General Assembly.
In Prince William, growth barely registered and was overtaken by efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, which were urged by Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart and other Republican candidates. Voters responded, supporting all of the incumbents and maintaining the GOP's 6 to 2 majority on the board.
One difference between the counties, observers said, is that Prince William has grappled with growth longer, leaving voters to focus on other issues, such as illegal immigration.
But in Loudoun, residents are still struggling with the changes brought by rapid suburbanization. Eight of the nine successful candidates campaigned on a slow-growth platform, accusing the board's Republican majority of approving thousands of new homes without regard to their effects on schools, traffic and taxes.
"Controlling residential development is not typically a Republican issue," said Stewart, who made slow growth his key issue in last year's special election for board chairman. He backed a one-year freeze on new applications for residential development once in office.
"People are looking for leaders who are willing to talk honestly and act boldly to address the threats to quality of life," said Stewart, who included illegal immigration as one of those threats. "Prince William has taken the lead on fighting illegal immigration. Prince William Republicans are also smart growth, whereas their counterparts in Loudoun have been pro-development. That's why they were routed."
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), whose district includes southeastern Loudoun, agreed: "The Republican board in Prince William has responded to the growth issue, unlike Loudoun. That's the difference."
Marshall, who is known in Richmond as much for his support of socially conservative causes as his efforts to temper development, drew a majority of support from voters in both counties Tuesday. Two years ago, Loudoun voters favored his Democratic opponent, but not by enough to offset his margin in Prince William. He credited his success in Loudoun this year to his high-profile opposition to a proposal to add as many as 33,800 homes south of Dulles International Airport.
The same issue helped sink Loudoun Supervisor Steve J. Snow (R-Dulles), who supported the project despite heavy opposition from residents and slow-growth groups. The Loudoun board voted the project down, but Snow took a major hit, losing by a wide margin to Democrat Stevens R. Miller.
Many Republicans said the outcome of the election was less a matter of Loudoun switching from a red county to a blue one than the latest whim of a perpetually fickle electorate. In the past several county elections, voters have alternately selected slow- and pro-growth majorities.
They also pointed out that four Republicans who represent parts of Loudoun in the legislature won their seats Tuesday and that Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) defeated Judy Feder (D) by a 2-1 ratio last year.
But since 2005, the county has become more favorable for Democrats. That year, Loudoun voters elected David E. Poisson (D) over conservative Republican Richard H. Black in the 32nd House District, surprising political watchers across the state. A year later, they elected Mark R. Herring (D) to the state Senate in a special election for the seat of William C. Mims (R), who took a job in the state attorney general's office. Loudoun voters also resoundingly supported Timothy M. Kaine (D) for governor and James Webb (D) for the U.S. Senate.
Democrats and Republicans said that Loudoun voters are not abandoning their conservative roots but that they have begun to see Democrats as more responsive to their daily needs.
"There are an awful lot of people who resent the idea that their party owns their vote," said Miller, who aggressively courted independent and GOP voters. "Republicans are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves and voting for someone who is not a Republican if that's what they think is best. But after that, they turn back into Republicans."
Prince William appears to be the last redoubt for Republicans in Northern Virginia, said Tom Kopko, chairman of the Prince William Republican Committee.
"Prince William and Loudoun diverged first and most notably on controlled growth," Kopko said. "Ideology does not win elections." Republicans "should run on issues, and they should have conservative principles underlying them," he said.
"In Prince William County, we run on common-sense issues," he said. They can take a lesson in Loudoun "and stick to common sense."
Stewart predicted that Republicans will make a comeback in Northern Virginia but that to do so, the party will have to focus on quality-of-life issues.
"The Prince William model has won," he said. "It also is clearly the way to victory in the future in Northern Virginia. We've shown Republicans how they can redeem themselves. Welcome to the Alamo. It's the last stand here."
Donald Scoggins said he moved to Prince William from Fairfax County three years ago in search of a "quasi-rural environment" and a more conservative way of life.
"Everyone is seeing what happened in Fairfax, and we vowed not to let that happen in Prince William. We don't want a mini-Fairfax County," said Scoggins, a GOP activist who likened Loudoun's policies on growth to those in Fairfax. "We tend to be a little more conservative down here."