The sudden decision of Rep. Edward L. Schrock (R-Va.) this week not to run for reelection has set off a flurry of political activity among leaders in both major parties as they adjust to a new reality in upcoming races for state and federal offices.
Schrock, a two-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was widely considered an entrenched incumbent, until a Washington-based activist claimed on his Web site that Schrock is living a secretly gay lifestyle. After refusing to comment for more than a week, Schrock said Monday he will not stand for reelection Nov. 2.
In a flash, Schrock's departure transformed the congressional race in the Southeast Virginia district from a perceived sure thing into a potentially competitive race.
Democrat David B. Ashe, a former Marine who served two years in Iraq and Kuwait, has struggled to raise money in his bid for the seat but says he is no longer concerned.
"It's pretty clear to us now that we will have all the money we need to do the things we need to do to win this election," Ashe said. "Now, the visibility is higher up on the radar scope."
Within 24 hours, Republicans rallied to choose their own candidate, settling quickly on state Del. Thelma Drake (Norfolk), a real estate agent and solidly conservative politician who had risen to become a senior member in the House of Delegates.
Dozens of party loyalists packed into the city's GOP offices in the heart of Virginia Beach on Tuesday night to select a successor to Schrock. In a secret ballot, Drake beat out state Sen. Nick Rerras (Norfolk) and the Virginia Beach sheriff, Paul J. Lanteigne. State Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (Virginia Beach) had dropped out of the nomination contest hours earlier.
Drake has begun to assemble a campaign where just days ago there was none. Because of federal election laws, she may not use any of the money she raised for her state races in the congressional contest. But she, too, said she expects no financial problems.
"People are ringing my phone off the hook to tell me they will give me money," she said. "That, I'm not going to worry about."
Republican and Democratic strategists said Wednesday that they believe the district, which stretches through Tidewater and includes military bases and many veterans, favors Drake's party. "It's not an easy district for a Democrat to run in, on paper," conceded Laura Bland, the Democratic Party's communications director.
State GOP spokesman Shawn Smith said Drake will quickly pick up support from the state's Republican members of Congress, including Reps. Eric I. Cantor and Jo Ann S. Davis, both of whom Drake served with in the state House.
"Our congressional delegation will be solidly behind her," Smith said. "She's got relationships there."
Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which helps finance Republican candidates for Congress, said the committee will support Drake, though no decision has been made about how much money she might receive. And senior GOP sources said Drake could expect campaign appearances from national Republicans, including some on the House Armed Services Committee.
"There's little doubt that Thelma Drake will be the next member of Congress from the 2nd District," Forti said.
But some GOP operatives, many of whom were watching the events from the Republican National Convention in New York, expressed concern that Ashe has had a long head start on Drake.
Ashe -- who unlike Drake has a campaign Web site, staff and bank account -- said he welcomed a new opponent.
"In a lot of ways, this doesn't change the campaign," Ashe said. "We are still focused on making good on the promises that we all make to our veterans and their families. It's going to remain a strong campaign focused on veterans, transportation and education."
Ashe, who served as an active-duty Marine for seven years and then was recalled for two years just after Sept. 11, 2001, said he will continue to stress military issues.
Drake said that she, too, is familiar with and supportive of the military, and that her campaign will focus on regional and national security and the war on terrorism.
"I don't think you need to have served in the military to be someone who cares about the military," she said.
Republicans said that Drake will highlight the fact that Ashe has never held office. Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), a Drake supporter, called Ashe "a neophyte in politics."
Even though there are two months to go before the November elections, state political leaders have also begun thinking about the impact Schrock's decision might have on the 2005 state campaigns.
If Drake loses, she can keep her seat in the House of Delegates and run for reelection in 2005. But if she wins, Democrats said they believe they can retake the Norfolk House seat, which was previously held by a Democrat.
"We're optimistic about our chances and excited to try and pick up a Democratic seat," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. If Drake wins, he said, "we're going to pursue it aggressively."
Even McDonnell said his party would have a tough time. "It will be a dogfight," he said.
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.