Democrats' Slim Victories In Va. Build GOP's Hopes

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009

Two surprisingly narrow victories for Democrats this year in blue-tilting Northern Virginia show that the party is vulnerable to complacency as critical fall elections approach for governor and the House of Delegates, party leaders said.

In January, Democrat Charniele Herring of Alexandria scraped to victory by 16 votes to fill gubernatorial contender Brian Moran's seat in the House of Delegates. This month, Sharon S. Bulova was elected Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman by defeating Republican Pat S. Herrity with little more than a 1 percent margin.

Observers from both parties say the results show that Republicans are hungrier than Democrats after losing nearly every major election in Virginia in recent years. They say that voters are fatigued after the intensity of last year's presidential campaign and that the urgency that drove Democrats out in large numbers began to wane when President George W. Bush left office.

It all adds up to a new level of uncertainty, and a loss of momentum for Democrats, as both parties prepare for a high-dollar fight for the governor's mansion and for control of the House of Delegates.

"It's a wake-up call, clearly, for the Democrats," said state Del. James M. Scott, a Democrat who represents a swath of inner Fairfax County along Interstate 66. "A lot of things that we seemed to have a lock on, it doesn't seem right now that that's the case."

Particularly troubling to Democrats -- and encouraging for Republicans -- was the outcome of the chairman's race in Fairfax. In recent elections, Virginia's largest jurisdiction has been a Democratic juggernaut, helping the party's candidates win races for governor and Senate, and even president, with its sheer size and increasingly blue political composition.

But on Feb. 3, Bulova won a county of 1 million residents by 1,206 votes. She lost the absentee ballots. She lost four of nine supervisor districts, including two held by Democrats. She lost four of nine state Senate districts, three of them held by Democrats. And she lost six of 11 House of Delegates districts, three of them held by Democrats.

"We came doggone close," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II, a Republican from western Fairfax who is running for attorney general. "Maybe they've already reached a point where they expect to win and they say to themselves, 'They don't need me to show up. This is a Democratic county.' And lo and behold, it's not a Democratic county anymore."

Special elections always draw smaller numbers of voters and are far less predictable. The chairman's race was no exception, with about 16 percent of registered voters casting ballots compared with 77 percent in November. While some political observers cautioned not to read too deeply into the Feb. 3 results, others found it significant that more Democratic-leaning voters than Republicans chose to stay home.

Former congressman Tom Davis said the results were reminiscent of the Fairfax of the 1990s, when many more supervisors and lawmakers represented swing districts. He said the Democrats who stayed home are the same voters who have been tilting recent elections blue: young people, minorities and newcomers who were motivated at least in part because of their antipathy toward the outgoing president

"He's gone," Davis said of Bush. "At this point, re-creating the bogeyman is much harder for them. They also face the burden of governing. What they're going to find is that this strong gale-force wind is no longer at their back, and they're going to find it in their face."

The electoral results support Davis's point. Across Fairfax, the lowest turnout on Feb. 3 occurred in the county's more urban precincts, where the electorate includes a disproportionate number of apartment- and condo-dwellers: mostly young, lower-income and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic. Lorton Station, for example, delivered 1,549 votes for Obama but only 84 for Bulova. Centreville delivered 1,796 votes to Obama and 149 to Bulova. The stories are similar in Tysons Corner, Merrifield and near Herndon.

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