Attention in Fairfax turns to filling new senator's House seat

By Derek Kravitz and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 14, 2010; B03

Newly elected Sen. David W. Marsden's come-from-behind win in Fairfax County on Tuesday night sent a message, Northern Virginia Democrats say.

They're back.

Marsden (D) said internal polls in early November showed him running behind Stephen M. "Steve" Hunt (R), a former Fairfax County School Board member, by a double-digit margin.

Hunt appealed to the Republican faithful with a message that stressed, among other conservative principles, fiscal responsibility and an opposition to abortion rights. An energized GOP, fresh off November wins for governor and other state offices, forecast that it would easily keep the seat vacated by conservative Attorney General-elect Ken Cuccinelli II.

But Tuesday night, it was Marsden's campaign that rallied special election voters, a breed that is difficult to predict. He won several solidly Republican precincts, including 13 in conservative Springfield and Centreville, and held on to a 405-vote advantage with absentee voters. The absentee ballots were a sign, his campaign said, that Democrats had rebounded from the November losses.

"Voters realized they wanted someone to work for them and not just fight in Richmond," Marsden said. "And I think this means that Northern Virginia Democrats are back on track."

Anthony Bedell, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said that Hunt's loss was "disappointing" but that special elections, given their quick time frame and low voter turnout, are not indicators of larger political shifts.

In Richmond, where the General Assembly convened for its annual legislative session Wednesday, Marsden was sworn into office in the well of the Senate chamber, his wife and a beaming Democratic Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax) at his side.

Democrats say they hope Marsden's election will stem the tide of Republican victories in Virginia, particularly in Northern Virginia. The area has formed the core of their party's expanded power over the past decade but supported Republican Robert F. McDonnell for governor. Marsden's victory takes back a seat held by Cuccinelli since 2002; all 10 state senators that have districts all or partly in Fairfax County are Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who helped recruit Marsden to run for the seat in November, said it was the former delegate's moderate image that resonated with voters -- an "archetype of the successful Democrat beyond the Beltway" who pulls in independents and right-leaning Democrats. Republicans had represented the 37th District since 1992.

The Democratic National Committee forwarded an e-mail Wednesday with an article about the election, with the subject line: "A wake up call for Republicans."

"That's hyperbole," said the Senate's top Republican, Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). But, he said, Marsden's win would "create the perception that the Republican tsunami has been slowed a bit."

Marsden's victory helps to solidify a Democratic majority in the state Senate, the only part of Virginia government not controlled by the GOP. With his win, the party's majority expands from one vote to two. No longer could McDonnell sway the balance of power in the body by persuading a single senator to accept a job in his administration.

"This should finally quiet all that talk," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), who had been considered a top potential target of McDonnell's efforts.

The win also means that caucus unanimity is no longer required on tight votes, which lessens the power of individual senators to make demands from their own leaders in exchange for their support.

"Everything was a close call -- now it's a little better," Saslaw said.

Fairfax political circles are turning their sights to another special election to fill Marsden's vacant state House seat in the 41st District, a geographically small but densely populated section of the county that includes West Springfield and Burke.

Kerry D. Bolognese, a higher education lobbyist, said Wednesday that he would seek the Republican nomination for the seat. He lost to Marsden in the 41st District House race in November by 209 votes.

Democrats are recruiting their own candidate. The governor has scheduled the election for March 2; the filing deadline is Jan. 29.

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