Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this column, including in the print edition of Thursday's Washington Post, misstated the year that Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) was elected to his current term in the Virginia Senate. It was 2007.

Robert McCartney: In Va. race, Democrats get another chance

Thursday, December 3, 2009; 8:36 AM

For all you Northern Virginia Democrats who've been insisting that last month's Republican landslide was a fluke, here's your chance to prove it.

Surely you can defeat a state Senate candidate who, as a Fairfax County School Board member in 2005, urged teaching children that homosexuality is a choice and a "very destructive lifestyle" and publicly described in detail his regret over failing to remain a virgin until marriage.

Stephen M. Hunt, who easily won the GOP nomination at a well-attended party canvass Tuesday evening, campaigns in his old Navy flight jacket and an American flag necktie. His supporters display the "Don't Tread on Me" banner favored by the antitax Tea Party movement, with whom Hunt rallied on the Mall in September.

Democrats see Hunt as a tempting target who offers a chance for them to pick up a valuable Senate seat in a special election Jan. 12 in the 37th District in southwestern Fairfax. After doing a poll to identify the strongest potential candidate, the party leadership picked state Del. Dave W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), a former head of the state Juvenile Justice Department, as its nominee. Democrats hope he'll appeal to independents, as he's so moderate he was a Republican until 2004.

The Democrats shouldn't get their hopes up. For now, I'm betting that Hunt wins. He's well known among local grass-roots activists who tend to dominate special elections. And he's already adopting GOP Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell's successful strategy of playing down his socially conservative views and emphasizing the need to get the economy moving.

"We're going to run on the same things Bob McDonnell ran on," Hunt said. "I'm not running away from social conservatism, [but] the things that people are concerned about today are the economy, the taxes that are taken out of their pay, the ability to have the business they work for stay in business."

Hunt and Marsden are seeking to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), another outspoken conservative who is about to step down after being elected state attorney general.

The race is important, because it will determine whether Democrats can fatten their 21-to-19 seat majority in the Senate. That edge is the only barrier to complete Republican supremacy in Richmond. The GOP controls the House of Delegates and, in addition to the attorney general spot, will hold the positions of governor and lieutenant governor starting Jan. 16.

The Democrats would like the extra Senate seat partly to guard against McDonnell making the balance 20-to-20 by peeling away a Democratic senator with an offer of a well-paid position in his Cabinet. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he was "pretty sure, knock on wood" that he wouldn't lose anybody that way. But he said that Democrats will push to win the Fairfax seat as insurance.

"The base is going to be very heavily worked. The base knows how important it is for us to go from 21 to 22" seats, Saslaw said.

Democrats hope that last month's rout was a one-time setback resulting only from the woeful campaign run by gubernatorial candidate Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). I don't buy it. Although Deeds certainly didn't help, Democratic support was tepid overall Nov. 3.

The Democrats think they have a fair chance in the 37th because Cuccinelli was only barely reelected in the district in 2007. But that was a relatively good year for Democrats in the commonwealth, and Virginia's political climate has since shifted to the right, partly because of a backlash against big spending in Washington.

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