In Northern Va., Fatigue, Organization Worry Democrats After GOP Wins

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

Yet another GOP victory in a local election in Northern Virginia has left Republicans energized and Democrats wondering whether their winning streak across the state is coming to an end as this year's race for governor heats up.

Two Democrats, Timothy B. Lovain and Justin M. Wilson, were ousted from the Alexandria City Council on Tuesday. They will be replaced by a Republican, Frank H. Fannon IV, and a Republican-leaning independent, Alicia R. Hughes.

It was the fourth election this year in which Democrats lost -- or won by uncomfortably close margins -- local races where they were assumed by both parties to hold a sizable advantage.

In January, Democrat Charniele Herring of Alexandria squeaked to victory in the race to replace Brian Moran, who is running for governor, in the House of Delegates. In February, Democrat Sharon Bulova encountered a similarly close call in a special election to replace Gerald E. Connolly, now in the U.S. House, for chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. And Republican John C. Cook took Bulova's old seat, representing the Braddock District on the board.

"There have been a number of signs that we're not getting out the vote, we're taking things for granted," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "And there is a consistent drive for change. The Democrats have got to prove that they still are the party of change."

Some Democrats chalked up their poor showing Tuesday to the unpredictability of special elections, which typically attract low turnout, and to the fact that voters are less concerned with party affiliation at the local level.

"I think both parties have good ideas," said Alexandria resident Debbie Chick, who voted for Fannon and Hughes. "I think you should look at the person. If your heart tells you these people are out for the good of the city, those are the people you want, Republican or Democrat."

But others worried that activist fatigue after last year's historic presidential election, combined with lackluster local organization, could be problematic for Democrats as they try to hold the governor's office in Richmond for the third straight term.

"Your regular stalwarts are tired," said Bulova, who recounted the scene at a recent Democratic rally at Mason District Park in Fairfax to begin the political season. "It was raining, and it was cold, and it was nasty, and the crowd was small. And you know, I looked out at faces, and they looked exhausted."

Three Democrats, Brian Moran of Alexandria, R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County and Terry McAuliffe of McLean, are competing in the gubernatorial primary June 9. The winner will face Republican Robert F. McDonnell in November.

Republicans have demonstrated a particular strength in attracting absentee voters during this year's local elections. Fairfax Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), who lost narrowly to Bulova, won the absentee vote. So did Fannon in Alexandria on Tuesday, even though he came in third overall among the 10 candidates. (The top six won.)

Republican Tom Davis, a former congressman from Fairfax County, said he believes that much of the Democratic surge in Virginia in recent years, particularly President Obama's victory, was attributable to distaste for former president George W. Bush. Now, "the oxygen that got these guys up in the morning is gone," Davis said.

Davis said he believes McDonnell has the advantage going into November because Virginia is a "countercyclical" state, meaning that, for the past 40 years, the party of the president has lost the governor's race and control of the congressional delegation. Most recently, former governor Mark Warner and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, both Democrats, continued that trend by winning while Bush was president. Also under Bush, the balance of the congressional delegation switched from 8 to 3 Republican to 6 to 5 Democrat.

"With Bush gone, with the Democrats in control, they're giving us a look," Davis said of voters. "They haven't hired us. They aren't letting us run things. But that's the way it used to be in Northern Virginia. The better candidates won."

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