After bad fall, Democrats looking to bounce back
Party leaders pledge to work with McDonnell, worry about slim Senate majority

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Still smarting from Tuesday's crushing defeat, Democrats in Virginia are charting a new path as Richmond's minority party.

Leading Democrats pledged this week to reach out to Republican Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell. They said that the serious economic problems facing the state demand bipartisan solutions, but they also said that pragmatic cooperation is the only way back into voters' good graces.

"We got walloped on Tuesday. You can't deny that," said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D), a former governor who had a lengthy conversation with McDonnell this week. "I will note he talked a lot about what he wants to do in the immediate term on jobs and economy. . . . Now it's time to check the D and R hats at the door, and it's time to work together."

Of immediate concern for Democrats in Richmond is maintaining their one-vote majority in the state Senate and deciding how to use their voice in the Senate to influence governing. They will face a governor with a mandate provided by a 17-point victory and a 100-member House of Delegates with a Republican caucus that can muster as many as 61 votes.

"I won't be like the House Republicans were, where anything they propose is bad," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who like many Democrats says the GOP-led House obstructed the agenda of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). "If there are areas where we can work things out, I'm ready, willing and able, and so is my caucus."

A spokesman for McDonnell said he wants to work with the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"He will absolutely look for common ground," said spokesman Tucker Martin. "The foremost goal is the creation of jobs and getting our economy going. And there aren't Republican and Democratic jobs and schools and roads. There are just jobs and schools and roads."

But asked about certain key pieces of McDonnell's agenda, Saslaw demurred. Selling state-run liquor stores to raise money for transportation, for instance, would sacrifice the annual revenue the stores provide to schools and other purposes, Saslaw said. The Senate's education committee remains opposed to changing state laws to allow more charter schools, another McDonnell proposal, he said.

In the short term, Saslaw's challenge will be to hold his party's 21 seats. McDonnell might try to tip the balance of power in the Senate by luring a Democrat in a vulnerable district into his administration.

One key senator Friday did not rule out the possibility of accepting such an offer. Sen. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) , a longtime school administrator who was considered for secretary of education under both Kaine and Warner, said he would be willing to discuss an administration job.

"I would certainly be willing to talk to the governor-elect and his staff about whatever they want to talk about," he said. "I'm not looking for that, I'm not seeking that, but I'm willing to talk to them about anything."

Democrats could secure their majority by winning either of two Republican-held Senate seats that will become open because of Tuesday's election results.

One seat is being vacated because of the election of Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R) as sheriff of Virginia Beach. And Democrats are particularly interested in the seat being vacated by the election of Republican Ken Cuccinelli II (Fairfax) as state attorney general.

Cuccinelli's district is in an area that supported President Obama last year but backed McDonnell this week. With control of the Senate in the balance, the race there will be hotly contested.

Three Republicans have said they are interested in the Fairfax seat: Marianne Horinko, a former federal appointee who runs a consulting firm; Steve Hunt, a former member of the Fairfax County School Board; and Will Nance, executive director of Greenspring Retirement Community.

Among Democrats, former Fairfax School Board member Janet Oleszek, who came with 100 votes of ousting Cuccinelli in 2007, said Friday that she will not run again. Del. Dave W. Marsden, who was reelected Tuesday in a House district that makes up much of the Senate district, said he is interested and will make a decision next week.

Democrats also have to worry about where to position the party for the longer term.

Some party activists say that their gubernatorial candidate, R. Creigh Deeds, was too hesitant in embracing progressive causes and that he lost because Democrats were not inspired by his candidacy. They say the party needs to move left. Others have called for the reinforcing the state party's centrist reputation.

Three freshman Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be targeted by the GOP in 2010. But state Democratic Party Chairman C. Richard Cranwell said there is no reason to assume that this year's results point to the defeat of candidates next year.

"For those folks who pronounced last year the Republican Party was dead, they always amused me," he said. "And those people who pronounce the Democratic Party in the same dire predicament because of what happened Tuesday are just as amusing to me. Next year will be a different election, with different results."

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