With Virginia Republicans poised to seize control of both legislative houses, and Democrats determined to prevent that, open seats are an even hotter commodity this year than usual.
There are only six legislative races statewide where no incumbent is running, and Fairfax County is home to two of them. Both campaigns have become intense battles, full of name-dropping, oneupmanship and money.
For the state's only open Senate seat, left vacant by retiring Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D), Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D) is squaring off against lawyer Dan Rinzel (R) in the 36th Senate District in southern Fairfax.
For the open House seat, left vacant by Puller, longtime Fairfax County School Board member Kristen J. Amundson (D) is said to be in a tight race with native son Scott Klein, a former employee of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and of Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).
Many view Puller as the de facto incumbent in the Senate race, since much of the district she has represented since 1992 lies within the Senate district she now seeks to represent.
Puller, 54, talks as though the race is over--"It'll be a real privilege to be in the Senate of Virginia," she said in a recent interview. "I think it'll be nice to have a four-year term." But she is no slacker; her fund-raising had amassed nearly $200,000 by the end of August.
Despite raising less than half that amount by Aug. 31, Rinzel and the Fairfax Republicans insist they have narrowed Puller's lead, that she has not brought home transportation money as she claims and that she is "weak on education," as numerous Rinzel mailings allege.
"If you stand back," Rinzel said in a debate, "somebody else is going to take your piece of the pie with the good ol' boy network from downstate."
Puller counters, "All he can do is hit me, because he doesn't have a whole lot to offer." She maintains that he is misrepresenting--even lying about--her record.
Rinzel, 56, is a former Justice Department lawyer who then worked as the chief counsel for the permanent subcommittee on investigations on Capitol Hill. He often notes that that is the same position Robert F. Kennedy once held and that the congressional experience would set him up well for working in Richmond.
Puller, who shows only minor effects from a 1997 stroke, says she wants to return to the capital to do more work on education and transportation--such as extending Metrorail into the Mount Vernon area.
The contest between Klein and Amundson is widely considered a tight one, and it is turning uglier by the day.
Today, Amundson is to hold a news conference to refute two recent mailings by her opponent that she says distort her record.
In May, after announcing that she would not run for reelection, Amundson voted to boost School Board members' pay from $8,000 to $12,000, a raise that would take effect only after she left the board. Klein's mailings imply Amundson voted a pay raise for herself, and they quote former member Fred Ward, a fellow Democrat, denouncing her.
Untrue, Amundson said. Ward was denouncing only those members who would still be on the board to get the raise, and he will join Amundson today to make that point clear.
Klein said he did not believe his mailings were misleading.
"It's not time for a 50 percent pay raise for anyone," he said, citing what he said was poor performance among area schools. "That money would be better spent in the classroom."
Republicans have also alleged that Amundson only recently moved into the district. In fact, she said, she lived in it before the 1990 redistricting, which drew the line a half-mile short of her house. So while she moved to a new house this spring, she said, she has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years.
State Republicans are pouring money into the campaign, airing TV ads that feature Klein's old boss Warner and dropping mailing after mailing. Most of the mailings include a photo of the two together.
Amundson claims her eight years on Fairfax's School Board, two as chairman, position her to address education needs, including tripling state funding for alternative schools and improving Virginia's implementation of new academic standards. But Klein points to the poor performance of several Mount Vernon-area schools, and blames Amundson for it.
Klein also talks frequently about what he says is the sorry state of Route 1, a road he says he remembers biking to as a boy for ice cream. Now, he says, it's a "mecca of pawnshops and palm reading." He proposes using his business background to revitalize the corridor.
Amundson said the state has recently addressed Route 1's problems by creating funds for "technology zones," which county officials hope to tap into.
Klein spent all but his college years in the district, and his old friend, Scott Silverthorne, a Democratic member of the Fairfax City Council, is pulling for him in spite of his GOP affiliation.
"I think when you have someone who grew up there and has a passion for the community, it makes a difference in the way you serve," Silverthorne said.
Fairfax Democratic Chairman Emilie Miller believes Amundson's PTA work, childrearing and School Board service position her well against Klein, who is 34 to Amundson's 49.
"She brings a maturity," Miller said. "As someone said, 'She's got shoes older than he is.' "
A lot is riding on the Nov. 3 election. The victors will govern not only for the next two years but to some extent for the next decade, since the legislature of 2000 will redraw congressional and state legislative districts.