This has not been a championship season for Alexandria's struggling Republican party. In last November's House of Delegates race, the GOP incumbent was defeated by a Democrat. In May, the party lost its mayoral bid and saw its margin on the seven-member City Council shrink from three to two.
This November, the Republicans will be at it again, trying to recoup their losses in an unprecedented off-year House of Delegates race made necessary by statewide redistricting. For the first time, both Republican candidates are women, Old Town architect Linda H. Michael and veteran campaigner Betty McCann, a former aide to now-retired Virginia Rep. Joel T. Broyhill. This is Michael's first bid for elective office, while McCann is taking her third shot at a delegate's seat.
Although Republicans concede that unseating the two Democratic incumbents -- Bernard Cohen and Marian Van Landingham -- is a long shot, they see the new single-member districts as a potential advantage. The idea is that head-to-head confrontations will make it easier to target issues and less costly to campaign.
For the moment, Alexandria Democratic Chairman Donald Henry is cautious -- "We shan't take any race for granted" -- but he doubts the Democrats will have any trouble keeping both seats.
Michael will square off against Van Landingham, who won her first term last November by defeating the Republican incumbent, David Speck. McCann is challenging Bernard Cohen, who is seeking a third term in the House of Delegates.
With last November's GOP loss interpreted as a referendum on Reaganism, Alexandria Republicans are taking care to put distance between their candidates and the White House. Republicans also point to the General Assembly's defeat of the equal rights amendment, which has popular support in Alexandria, as a sign of failed Democratic leadership.
"I don't see myself running on Reagan's coattails," said Republican McCann, who came in last among four candidates in last fall's delegate race and who attributed her loss mostly to the Democratic sweep of statewide offices.
"Reaganomics is not an issue," GOP Chairman Elizabeth Montgomery insisted. "And if you want to talk about ERA," -- which she does -- "it's [Marian Van Landingham's] party that didn't pass the ERA. They kept it in committee and didn't even give the delegates a chance to vote on it! I'm running two women [who are] feminists and feminine -- not Bella Abzugs."
Under the new redistricting, Alexandria is split into two districts along Quaker Lane, instead of one, two-member district.
The eastern district, eight miles square with about 24,000 registered voters, includes the affluent, established Old Town neighborhoods as well as the predominantly black, heavily Democratic precincts in the north end of the city -- precincts that have proven immune to annual overtures of Republican candidates.
Former Republican delegate David Speck said it was a poor showing in those Democratic strongholds that hurt him in his unexpected defeat last November. But Northern Virginia Republicans are hoping that without the allure of the governor's race, fewer voters will turn out this year. That often translates into GOP gains. "I don't think we'll have the same kind of voters wanting to send a message to Ronald Reagan," Speck said.
The new western district, with about 22,000 registered voters, includes Condo Canyon and many single-family neighborhoods. The Republican foothold is thought to be stronger there, although voting patterns are unpredictable because of the fast-growing, transient population: census data show at least 50 percent of the residents have lived there two years or less.
"There are lots of renters out there," Democratic Chairman Henry said. "The turnout is erratic." It's hard to hold campaign coffees in the high-rise, high-security condominiums, which are accessible to candidates only by direct mail. Name recognition will be especially important, strategists in both parties agree, and that could give Democratic incumbent Cohen an advantage.
Although the election is still months away, McCann and Cohen already are sparring, but their jabs are reruns of last year's match. McCann once again is lambasting Cohen as being a "lawyer-legislator more interested in his clients than his district."
Said Cohen: "Betty frequently gets confused."