Democrat wins Va. Senate race

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; 7:51 AM

Defying recent voting trends that saw several Northern Virginia Republicans win big in November, Del. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) narrowly won a special election Tuesday night to represent a broad swath of southwestern Fairfax County in the Virginia Senate.

Marsden, 61, a two-term delegate from Burke who switched political parties earlier this decade while serving as the head of the state Department of Juvenile Justice under both Republican and Democratic governors, won the 37th state Senate seat vacated by Attorney General-elect Kenneth T. Cuccinelli (R) by rallying a voter base reeling from big losses in November's statewide and House races.

Marsden's victory over Republican Stephen M. "Steve" Hunt, a former Fairfax County School Board member, also expands the control of Virginia Democrats in the Senate chamber and makes compromise less likely heading into redistricting next year. In the only other senate race, in eastern Virginia Beach, Republican Jeff L. McWaters easily defeated Democrat William L. "Bill" Fleming in the 8th state Senate District to retain that seat for his party.

With all 39 precincts counted just before 9 p.m. Wednesday, Marsden led Hunt by 324 votes out of 23,569 votes cast. In Fairfax County, a recount requires less than a 1 percent difference and unofficial results from Tuesday night indicate the 37th vote fell just outside of that margin. Marsden won big in Burke and Fairfax Station and among absentee voters. It was the Democrat's 405-vote advantage among absentee voters, to observers, was the difference maker, said Isaac Wood, assistant communications director for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"Democrats will be rightfully excited," Wood said. "They can point to this and say they are turning a corner after the 2009 elections, where they performed quite poorly."

The results are to be certified Wednesday morning by the Virginia State Board of Elections and Marsden is expected to be sworn in with the Senate's 39 other legislators at noon. Tuesday's 18.2 percent voter turnout was high for a post-holiday season special election, officials said.

"We knew we were badly behind in the beginning, but we kept knocking on doors, and we kept our eyes on the finish line," said Marsden, who added that it was his moderate image that showed voters he would go to Richmond "not to fight but to work in a bipartisan way."

After conceding, Hunt praised Democrats for waging an "incredible get-out-the-vote campaign" and targeting absentee voters, who historically have swung for Republicans.

"It shows a certain degree of tactical capability on their party and we ran a very, very close race," Hunt said.

In a district that stretches from Springfield to Centreville and includes nearly 130,000 registered voters, Marsden campaigned on a moderate platform that focused on the two issues most Americans are wrestling with -- jobs and the economy. Small business loan guarantees, increases to the Governor's Opportunity Fund, a publicly-financed business incentive program, and criticisms of Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's much-ballyhooed budget figured prominently during Marsden's campaign.

David Winkler, 49, of Burke said he was swayed by Marsden's moderate political stances on small businesses and the economy. "He's not as partisan as most of the candidates are, which I like," Winkler said. Another voter, Kyle Facada, 22, said a Marsden victory was crucial to keeping a "proper balance in the General Assembly."

But despite a strong fundraising campaign that saw the state Democratic Party and individual donors pour at least $452,000 to Marsden's campaign since he announced his candidacy seven weeks ago, some Democrats remained skeptical about backing Marsden for Senate. Critics questioned Marsden's unusual living arrangement; Marsden, who has lived a few hundred feet from the 37th state Senate district boundary line for more than 25 years, moved out of his home in November to rent the lower half of a house owned by a Democratic donor about three miles south.

Rex Simmons, the newly-elected chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, said Marsden's victory would ensure Democrats would have a "seat at the table" with Republican Governor-elect Robert F. McDonnell.

"This is a tremendous win for Democrats in a district that has been largely Republican in the past," Simmons said. "This will give us a state senator for every inch of Fairfax County." The 37th has had a Republican state senator since 1992.

Republicans were left scrambling late Tuesday to figure out what happened.

"It's very disappointing," said Anthony Bedell, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee. "We had the momentum, we had the support and we just didn't get it done."

Voters in the district voted for McDonnell in the governor's race against state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) in November but both Senate candidates knew that their biggest challenge was simply to get voters to the polls. Hunt tried to energize his party's faithful at a Fairfax County Republican Committee last week, telling members: "The U.S. is at a crossroads. The state of the nation depends on a special election in Fairfax County."

In the final days, both campaigns turned aggressive. Marsden decried Hunts' "very bad judgment," referring to his views on homosexuality and sex education and Hunt told a group at a Fairfax County Republican Committee last week that he intended to "demolish" Marsden in the election. Hunt's wife, Monique, even tried to drum up publicity by calling into Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, who rebuffed a request for an interview with her husband.

Attention will now turn to another special election for Marsden's soon-to-be-vacant House seat in the 41st District.

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