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.
Scott Surovell, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, agreed that the results point to a weakness within the Democratic base. But he said that is not new; the party has always had to fight to draw out younger, lower-income voters who are less connected to their community.
Meanwhile, in higher-profile elections for president, governor and the U.S. Senate, ever-higher numbers of Democratic voters have made it nearly impossible for Republicans to win Fairfax, Surovell said.
The numbers tell the story. Since 2001, Democratic margins of victory have steadily grown in the county: a 26,000-vote victory for Mark R. Warner for governor in 2001; a 33,000-vote margin for John F. Kerry for president in 2004; a 60,000-vote win for Timothy M. Kaine for governor in 2005; 65,000 votes for Jim Webb for U.S. Senate in 2006; 109,000 votes for Obama last year.
The tight chairman's race "doesn't mean Fairfax is not a blue community," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum of Reston, chairman of the House Democratic caucus. "It means that Fairfax voters need to stop celebrating and be vigilant when it's time to get our people out."
Whatever the significance of Feb. 3, Republicans plan to make the most of it. They are promising challenges in every Democratic Party-held House of Delegates district where Herrity won -- and in several where he didn't. And Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, plans to spend a large portion of the campaign season in Fairfax, home to one in seven Virginians.
"I know that our Republicans are tired of losing," McDonnell said.
"We've had a bad stretch here over the past eight years, but I really do think that Republicans want to win. They are motivated, and they will start working again."