Gov. James S. Gilmore III has waited three decades, the equivalent of several lifetimes in Virginia politics, for this long weekend to arrive and usher in the eight weeks of electioneering so vital to his Republican Party.
After more than a century of near-absolute Democratic authority in a General Assembly that endures long after many governors have come and gone, the Nov. 2 elections could hand Gilmore and his GOP allies unsurpassed power over politics in the Old Dominion.
Not only is the legislative balance of power at stake in the grand halls of the Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson after his term as governor, but starting in January 2000, the dominant party will hold both the purse strings of Gilmore's biggest budget and the pen that redraws Virginia's electoral jurisdictions for the first decade of the new millennium.
"I could write a book on this--I've waited 30 years for it!" said Gilmore, shaking his head in mock disbelief at how close the Republicans are to capturing the 100-member House of Delegates. They already control the 40-member state Senate by a whisker-thin majority.
In a campaign likely to focus on a handful of legislative seats that could swing to either side, the numbers often break the GOP's way.
Republicans in the House, where neither party holds a majority now, have 49 incumbents or unopposed candidates running. The Democrats have 46. Incumbents generally have an edge in fund-raising and visibility.
Northern Virginia is important to both parties, especially as a laboratory on transportation problems and suburban growth, but is not the defining region this year. Of the five open seats in the House of Delegates, four are well outside Washington in territory generally regarded as Republican-leaning.
Similarly, only two of the six most hotly contested Senate races are centered in populous Fairfax County, as Democrats Linda T. "Toddy" Puller, a current House member, and Leslie L. Byrne battle Republicans Daniel F. Rinzel and Sen. Jane H. Woods, respectively.
As intense as those races may be, many incumbents will enjoy a free ride this fall. In the House, 26 Republicans--five of them in Northern Virginia--and 22 Democrats--two from Arlington and Alexandria--face no opponents.
Fourteen GOP senators, two of them Northern Virginians, and five Democrats have free rides.
Republican leaders say their challenge is persuading voters to continue the traditions of limited government, lower taxes and social conservatism at the legislative level that were defined by former governor George Allen (R) and his successor, Gilmore. They hope that Gilmore's popular car tax repeal and outreach to traditional Democratic supporters such as blacks and labor will lift GOP incumbents and challengers alike; no Republican lawmaker is in a district where Gilmore lost in 1997.
Gilmore will be very visible in the next two months as the featured attraction at many fund-raisers for candidates across the state.
"These are local races," Gilmore said last week after emerging from a two-hour brainstorming session with his political team. "I have a clear understanding there are 100 different districts."
Despite the summer-long political debate over regional transportation problems, House and Senate races can turn on parochial issues and the politics of personality. Did the hometown delegate lend a hand in solving a state tax question or in getting a stop sign for a dangerous intersection? Do voters trust their state senator to help them in the two months the assembly is in session--and the 10 months when politicians are home?
The governor, who started out in politics as a lowly organizer for a Richmond congressman, is taking every election seriously--and personally. Two years after his election, Gilmore and his inner circle want legislative victory very badly.
They will follow "the Boyd Marcus kind of game plan," said Paul Goldman, a former state Democratic Party chairman who has watched Marcus, Gilmore's closest adviser, for years.
"They will be on the offensive," Goldman said. They will enjoy more money, better organization and a higher Republican voter registration than ever before. The GOP often benefits from a low voter turnout, Goldman added, and this fall's turnout is apt to be low, with no statewide or presidential candidates on the ballot.
Virginia Republicans have been riding a political tide that has crept across the South in recent years, particularly after the Ronald Reagan era.
Tim Storey, a Denver-based research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said data compiled since the Depression indicate steady gains for the GOP in southern statehouses, including the Republican takeover of Florida's legislature in 1996. Republicans control the House in South Carolina; the Texas Senate by three votes; and the Kentucky Senate, 20 to 18, after two Democrats switched parties.
"Democrats still have nominal control of legislatures in the South, but Republicans are as competitive now as they've ever been," Storey said. "That's the big story."
Other analysts are reluctant to count the Democrats out just yet. Thomas R. Morris, a political scientist and president of Emory and Henry College in southwest Virginia, pointed to the assembly races four years ago, when Democratic lawmakers slowed the momentum Allen had built on potent issues such as education.
"There's still an awful lot of uncertainty about critical races," Morris said. "Never underestimate the ability of a party that's been in control for over a century to have one last card to play."
Democrats believe their talk on transportation, education and the state's safety net on childhood insurance and mental health have traction.
Individual voting records also matter. Some Republicans are under fire for supporting Gilmore in the Hugh Finn right-to-die case and for legislative votes that would have weakened a measure closing Virginia schools to firearms.
Still, even some Democratic stars see trouble on the horizon and lay some of the blame on party leaders for not crafting resonant messages and recruiting up-and-coming activists.
"We're not paying enough attention to cultivating new blood, nurturing young people or leadership development," said state Sen. Emily Couric (D-Charlottesville), considered the front-runner in her reelection race and a prospect for the statewide elections in 2001.
"There hasn't been a concerted effort to have a 'bench' " to rely on in years to come, Couric said.
Gilmore already has campaigned across the state for GOP candidates and will do more in the next eight weeks. Yet, as hungry as he is for victory, he knows the political tides will keep ebbing and flowing long after he is out of power.
"We're emerging from a one-party state, and that's a healthy reform," Gilmore said. "But this historic moment is going to last far longer than my governorship."