RICHMOND, JUNE 2 -- Virginia Democrats and Republicans opened the final week of the 1987 primary election season today, and for those who remember when springtime could make or break a state legislator, it came not a moment too soon. Lately, cicadas have been getting more publicity than politicians.
True, there's a good old-fashioned brawl between two Democratic contenders for the House of Delegates in Southwest Virginia, and a pair of Republicans has kept suburban Richmond entertained, and occasionally infuriated, with a nasty battle for the GOP nomination to the state Senate.
But for the most part, this prelude to the general elections in November has been startlingly quiet, a far cry from the bygone era of decisive, rough-and-tumble springtime primaries.
Of course, this relatively recent trend is nothing but good news to the 140 members of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, more than half of whom are ensured of automatic reelection in the fall.
With a week to go before Tuesday's six primaries and months in advance of the fall elections, analysts in both major political parties are predicting only minor changes in the makeup of the legislature, a development that could work to the advantage of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles as he rounds the halfway post of his four-year term.
Four of the state's six primaries will be held in Northern Virginia, and all four are Republican contests.
The other two, one in Southwest Virginia and one in Norfolk, involve Democrats.
If Baliles and his Democratic allies in the legislature have little to fear from the upcoming elections, state Republicans have a lot on the line, according to GOP leaders.
After many months of trying to revitalize the party from the bottom up, Republicans believe they must capture several new seats to enhance their party's stature and power in the assembly.
"I don't think there's a Republican in the state who would not be extremely disappointed if we didn't hold on to our open seats and gain some others," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria).
However, judging by this spring primary season, the Virginia GOP still has a monumental task on its hands.
Not only has it been difficult to recruit candidates to challenge incumbent Democrats, but all-important party unity has been impossible to find in several key areas around the state.
In one embarrassing episode, Republican Eleanor Rice called a news conference to launch her campaign against Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), only to surprise her audience by saying she had changed her mind after being advised not to run, even by some in her own party. On Monday, Rice announced she had changed her mind a second time and would run against Andrews after all.
In the Republican stronghold of Chesterfield County outside Richmond, incumbent state Sen. Robert E. Russell and Joan Girone, both GOP members, waged a no-holds-barred fight for the nomination that included charges of convention delegate-buying, violations of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and worse.
In the end, three federal judges issued a ruling that left Russell with the pary's nomination, and Girone promising a summer-long grudge match as an independent candidate.
All told, Republicans expect to field about 30 new candidates in this fall's legislative elections, according to Stephen D. Haner, a state party strategist who helped organize the GOP's recent recruiting drive.
"We'd love to run somebody against everybody, but it's tough," said Haner, citing the ever-rising cost of political campaigns.
Meanwhile, he said, as many as 18 incumbent Republican legislators will face Democratic challenges.
One House seat that Haner and others believe is ripe for the taking is in Southwest Virginia, where three-term Del. James W. Robinson, a conservative Wise County Democrat, is locked in the toughest fight of his political career against Jack Kennedy, a Democrat with strong ties to organized labor in that mining region.
The Robinson-Kennedy contest, which a local newspaper politely described as being "wrought with innuendo, insults and misrepresentation," is by far the tightest primary in the state, one in which Robinson's perceived failure to stay in touch with his district has so far been offset by Kennedy's unusually aggressive campaign style.
Whoever wins the primary will face former college dean Bonnie Elosser, who is considered one of the strongest Republican candidates in that part of the state in years.
"It's a golden opportunity for us," said local GOP Chairman Jim Ferreira.
"We're trying to exceed anything we've done in the past. The thinking is: The train's leaving the station, so let's get on it."