By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
RICHMOND -- The power shift in the state Senate to Democrats from suburban and urban areas is causing tension with their rural colleagues and raising fresh questions about the party's health in south-central and southwestern Virginia.
When the Senate convenes in January, Democrats will take over from Republicans for the first time since the 1990s. The new majority will set a milestone in Virginia politics, installing women, minorities and men from the suburbs in all committee chairmanships.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said the changes could mean more money for projects in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, the economic engines of the state.
But as Democrats from those areas exert growing influence, some party leaders fear the rural Democrats who dominated state politics for more than a century could be pushed aside.
"I think there is already some tension," said Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell), who represents coal country in southwestern Virginia. "I have just asked for some fairness. I understand the seniority system, but at the same time, rural Democratic legislators are concerned."
Virginia Democrats might experience some of the rifts between suburban and rural interests that have hampered Republicans for years. With a 21 to 19 majority in the Senate, Democrats have little room for dissent if they want to pass bills.
Saslaw acknowledges that the party is facing growing pains after picking up the four seats needed to retake the Senate last month. But he says Democrats have long heard complaints from Northern Virginians that too much power was concentrated in rural areas.
Republicans sense an opportunity to build strength in rural parts of the state, cementing their status as the firewall for GOP candidates in statewide elections.
"They named their committee chairs and made a big point of them being from Northern Virginia and many being minority," said Virginia GOP Chairman John H. Hager. "If they rub that in too much, there might be some people who have a little reaction to that."
Although the rise of Democrats in Virginia reflects their success in rapidly growing and diversifying Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the party has struggled to make gains in more rural areas.
Despite spending major money in legislative races, Democrats failed to pick up rural House or Senate seats this year.
Hager said Virginia is now "a red state and a blue state all in one state." He added: "We will be very strong in the rural areas for a long time. It's the NASCAR crowd. It's our crowd."
Statewide, Republican House candidates received 100,000 more votes than Democrats. As they prepare for next year's presidential and U.S. Senate races, Democrats might have to find a way to boost their appeal in rural areas if they want to build a lasting majority in the state.
"It is going to be a challenge," said Sean T. O'Brien, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership in Charlottesville. "The power base for Democrats has shifted to suburban Democrats. There is a fear the rural Democrats are going to be forgotten. If Democrats do that, they are writing their own epitaph."
Puckett said he is confident his colleagues in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads "won't abandon" him. But he said the four senators from southwestern and rural southern Virginia could become swing votes if they feel they are being taken for granted.
Puckett and Sen. William Roscoe Reynolds (D-Franklin) represent two districts in southwestern Virginia that usually vote Republican in statewide elections because their regions tend to be conservative on cultural issues. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) and Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke) represent more Democratic-leaning districts in southwestern and southern Virginia. But Deeds and Edwards represent many residents with conservative views, as evidenced by their strong opposition to gun control.
Deeds said the new majority will have to work hard to avoid dissension.
"Many people in rural areas view the Democrats with suspicion because of the positions we take on social issues," Deeds said. "We have to do a better job of talking the language that all people understand. We as Democrats need to get back to basics and talk about building the economy, an issue that unites us."
U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D), who represents southwestern Virginia, said he's confident Democrats in Richmond will respond to the needs of rural Virginia by investing in economic development and transportation improvements.
"There is tremendous cohesiveness in the Senate," said Boucher, who served there from 1974 to 1983. "The people of influence have been there for a long time. . . . These are individuals who truly encompass a vision for the entire state."
But the effort to unite Senate Democrats around a message of economic populism might be hampered by a split over who should be named to the powerful Finance Committee.
Four slots on the committee will open up for Democrats when the General Assembly convenes. Democrats from southwestern Virginia argue they should get some of those slots, but the Senate's tradition of rewarding seniority could mean senators from other parts of the state get the plum seats.
"We are going to try to accommodate everyone, but basically this is the fall of the cards through the seniority system," Saslaw said.
Saslaw noted that Reynolds has been named deputy floor leader, which he said proves that the Democratic leadership is geographically diverse. Reynolds declined to comment.
Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) said the seniority system is "creating a huge geographic imbalance."
"Our majority is very tenuous," said Houck, who will chair the Education and Health Committee. "We got a very small majority to go around. Why do all the new chairmen also get the good committee assignments?"
The debate over the future of rural Democrats strikes a sensitive chord in Virginia because experts say rural voters are torn between the parties.
The trend, which has played out across the South, has been evident in presidential elections.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton carried southwestern Virginia's 9th Congressional District in both his elections. In this decade, President Bush has racked up huge margins in the region, including a 52,000-vote advantage over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.
Democrats have remained optimistic about their fortunes in the region because Mark R. Warner handily won southwestern Virginia in his 2001 run for governor. If Warner can do the same in his bid for the U.S. Senate next year, he will almost certainly be elected, because he is expected to run strong in vote-rich Northern Virginia. Democrats also picked up a dozen county offices in southwestern Virginia last month, which Boucher said bodes well for the long-term health of the party.
Democratic strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, who specializes in rural politics, said the party's prospects are improving in the South because the racial politics that helped drive rural voters to Republican candidates are subsiding.
Saunders and other Democratic strategists caution that the party still faces considerable challenges in Virginia, in part because of voter impressions of Democrats in Washington.
"This is still the Bible Belt," said Linda Diyorio, a strategist for Boucher. "The issues on the plate nationally -- guns, abortion, gay rights -- are issues that a lot of voters look at to form their perspective."
If those issues don't consume Virginia Democrats, Diyorio said, she is confident that the party's prospects will continue to improve in rural parts of the state, assuming there isn't a lot of intraparty squabbling in Richmond.
"Hopefully, Democrats have learned the lessons of the last few years," Diyorio said.