Republicans have shot at boosting numbers in Va. House

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

For much of this decade, Virginia Democrats have wondered every two years not whether they would increase their numbers in the House of Delegates but by how many seats.

Many Democrats hoped this could be the year that they finally won the six seats they need to take over the body, but amid a struggling economy, concern over federal policies and a governor's race in which Republican Robert F. McDonnell is favored to win, it is the GOP that now sees a chance to strengthen its numbers.

All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election this year. And although most eyes are on McDonnell's battle against Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, the stakes are enormous in the battle for control of the House, where lawmakers will determine what solution, if any, emerges to solve Virginia's expanding transportation crisis.

Moreover, whichever party is in the majority will control how such key state programs as public schools, mental health services and public safety are funded as the state continues to grapple with the worst budget crisis in a generation.

Some of the hardest-fought and best-funded legislative races feature incumbent Democrats simply trying to hang on -- a fact that has prompted speculation that something as dramatic as Republican gains of five, six or even more seats is within reach.

"I liken it to the child downstairs with the big kids upstairs fighting," said Del. David E. Poisson, a two-term Democratic incumbent from Sterling whose 32nd District is among the most hotly contested of the year. "All I'm trying to do is make it out of the house in one piece."

Recent history

Democrats have made their gains this decade primarily in Northern Virginia, the state's population center and home to one in four seats in the House. They have not only ridden the unpopularity of former president George W. Bush but have also benefited from the successes of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Sens. James Webb and Mark Warner.

They have emphasized kitchen-table issues, including fixing the state's transportation crisis, protecting K-12 education and restraining the residential sprawl many blame for the traffic they sit in morning and night. And they have juxtaposed their own pragmatic platforms against the conservative ideology of their Republican opponents, as well as the GOP's unwillingness to support finding new funds for transportation improvements.

"The House has generally been the body that says no to a lot of things," said Kaine. "The majority kind of knows what they're against, but they don't really know what they're for."

Those Democratic messages are resonating less this year, when most voters are concerned primarily with the economy and jobs, not raising taxes for roads -- and when many are unhappy with President Obama's efforts to push health-care reform, carbon emissions restrictions and other federal policies.

"The primary issue, whether you're in Northern Virginia or rural southwest Virginia or wherever, is jobs," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who expects his party to pick up seats Nov. 3. "The Democrats have no plan for the economy, and we do. We've seen stuff that was very pro-union. You saw efforts to raise taxes. That's the last thing we want to do during a very deep recession."

Current opportunities

Barbara J. Comstock is a McLean Republican who is challenging first-term Democrat Margaret G. "Margi" Vanderhye in what has become the most expensive House race in the state. Between them, they expect to spend more than $1 million by Election Day. Vanderhye is popular with business leaders and promises to push for new transportation funding. Comstock is running as a fresh face who will tackle the transportation crisis and protect education without raising taxes.

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