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Va. Democrats took a bruising, but state still remains in 'purple' territory

By Ben Pershing and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 10:46 PM

Republicans in Virginia unseated three members of Congress on Tuesday and nearly defeated a fourth, adding a convincing coda to their sweep of the governor's mansion last year.

Democrats lost ground across the state and now hold just three of the state's 11 House seats. In the Washington suburbs, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) led Oakton businessman Keith Fimian (R) by just 925 votes Wednesday, less than 1 percent of the total, and a recount is possible. In 2008, Connolly won the same matchup by 12 percentage points.

Just two years ago - after President Obama made history by winning Virginia's 13 electoral votes while state Democrats added a senator and three House members - Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared that his state had "taken a massive step. A mighty, mighty step."

More important, Kaine said at the time, "the gains this year were not a fluke. Everything we did this year prepares for next year."

Yet since that high point in November 2008, Virginia Democrats have steadily ceded power. For all the talk of Virginia turning from red to purple, the GOP will control much of Richmond and the congressional delegation come January.

The question now for both parties is which Virginia will surface in 2012, when Obama and Sen. James Webb (D) are scheduled to be atop the ballot: the diversifying state that pushed Obama to victory in 2008, or the still-conservative one that rejected the president and his allies so decisively this week.

Ascendant again after losing two Senate races and two governor's contests in the past decade, Republicans must decide how they will govern while attempting to extend their gains next cycle.

"We would make a big mistake if we think this election means that Virginia is a red state once again," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who plans to run for governor in 2013 and could face a primary challenge from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, a tea party favorite.

"This is a very purple state," he said. "To win, we need candidates who have the right ideas and the right stands on the issues, but candidates who have the ability to reach out to moderate and independent voters."

Sen. Mark Warner, the last Democrat to be elected statewide, made a similar point.

"I always think these prognostications are overstated - whether the Democrats are up or the Republicans are up," Warner said. "Virginia is a fiscally conservative state which wants to have people who can work together and get stuff done."

In the Hampton Roads region Tuesday, Rep. Glenn Nye (D) swung from a 5-point win over an incumbent two years ago to an 11-point loss against auto dealer Scott Rigell (R). Rep. Tom Perriello (D) lost by a narrower 3 percent to state Sen. Robert Hurt (R), after his party and outside groups pumped more than $3 million into the race to help him. Rep. Rick Boucher (D) was booted from southwest Virginia's 9th District by state House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R) after 28 years, during which he regularly garnered 60 percent of the vote.

For those incumbents, no particular legislative strategy provided shelter this election cycle.

Perriello backed every one of Obama's signature initiatives - earning a last-minute base-rallying visit from the president - and he lost. Nye opposed the health-reform bill and the climate change measure, bragging that he was his own man, and he lost, too. Boucher split the difference, voting for the climate change measure but against health care, and he went down to defeat despite a moderate record compiled over 14 terms.

Connolly barely held on in thriving suburban Fairfax - the county he long represented on the County Board of Supervisors - and lost the Prince William County portion of his district. "Republicans were competitive again in places Democrats thought they had locked down," observed Anthony Bedell, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee.

Boucher was rejected by the economically depressed rural counties that had long backed him. Republican gains also extended to urban areas: Nye lost Hampton City, Norfolk City and Virginia Beach City after winning all three areas in 2008, when Obama helped drive African American turnout.

Not surprisingly, every congressional district saw voter turnout drop from 2008 levels. The dropoff ranged from 39 percent in Nye's district, which Obama won narrowly, to 13 percent in Boucher's district, which Obama lost by a wide margin. No statewide exit poll data are available for this year, but the electorate for midterms tends to be older and whiter than that for election years.

Republicans may find their gains erased as quickly as they were won, said Robert Lang, a demographer who heads the Brookings Mountain West think tank at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and has closely followed Virginia's population shifts.

"In some ways, this may be the last hurrah of an older, white demographic," he said. "They voted in numbers so large you felt their demographic vote. In the end, it's a changing state."

He said the key to the GOP wins was that Democrats failed to excite the demographic groups that have favored the party in recent elections: minority voters and the young.

"Demography is not destiny," he said. "It's a structural condition. And every election is different. The issues change. The candidates change."

Connolly's close race, in particular, could be seen as a direct response to the national political climate, given that the two candidates were the same and the district has been relatively unscathed by local unrest or economic troubles. Fimian barely mentioned local issues during his campaign, instead focusing on the federal budget crisis.

"We're a nationally counter-cyclical state," said former Republican lawmaker Tom Davis, who represented Connolly's district from 1995 to 2008 without serious challenge. "It's the way it worked in Virginia for 40 years, for as long as we've had two-party politics. This was reaction to what was happening in Washington."

The Republican Party of Virginia is particularly eager to look ahead to 2012. On Wednesday, the party launched a new Web site, ObamaandWebbareNext.com, designed to send a message.

The site assumes Webb will run for reelection, although he has yet to publicly declare his intentions. Former senator George Allen (R) is widely thought to be planning a rematch against the man who ousted him in 2006; Allen had said he would wait until this year's election was over before making any decisions.

Both parties are also looking to the legislative elections in 2011. Republicans hold a dominant 20-vote advantage in the state House of Delegates, while Democrats are clinging to a 22-18 advantage in the state Senate - their only power base in Richmond.

"We're back to where we were . . . in 1997," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax), leader of the narrow Democratic majority. "It's part of the system - it comes and goes. You've got your ups and your downs."

"You've got to be able to isolate that national from the local," Saslaw said, explaining Tuesday's losses. "But can it swing back? It can always swing back."

ben.pershing@wpost.com heldermanr@washpost.com Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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