Special Elections Give Dems Chance to Control Va. Senate

Thursday, 02 Jan 2014 08:06 AM

By John Gizzi

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Fresh from winning all three statewide offices in the election last year, Virginia Democrats are now rated at least even money to win two special elections in January that could give them control of the state Senate.

As well as a boost to incoming Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democratic takeover of the Virginia Senate would send out powerful waves that would ripple onto the national political scene.

President Barack Obama twice narrowly carried the Old Dominion State's electoral votes.

For the first time since 1969, Democrats hold all three constitutional offices in Virginia as well as the two U.S. Senate seats. Should Democrats win the two special elections next month that would give them a tie in the 40-member Senate — and the tie-breaking vote to the Democratic lieutenant governor — it would be one more argument for national party leaders to make that "Virginia is turning blue."

Already bitterly divided over who was responsible for their losses in November, Republicans would almost surely step up their internecine warfare over "who lost Virginia."

In addition, the ongoing argument over whether candidates for state offices should be picked by conventions of party activists (which conservatives usually support) or primaries (a mechanism backed more often by centrists) would be exacerbated by a lost in the 33rd District special election, where opting for a convention over a primary led a Republican to run as an independent.

"Too many Republicans are tone deaf about what it takes to win and fine with losing if it means ideological purity," former Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Davis, a past chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Newsmax.

At stake next month are the vacant state Senate seats of Lt. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam in the 6th District (Norfolk-Virginia Beach) on January 7 and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring in the 33rd District (Loudon County) on January 21. The present Senate lineup is 20 Republicans, 18 Democrats, and the two vacancies.

Sources on all sides agree that the race for Northam's 6th District is very close, but the advantage goes to Democratic state Delegate Lynwood Lewis. However, Republican activists told Newsmax that Norfolk businessman and first-time candidate Wayne Coleman is running an exciting campaign and has united the party factions behind him. The conservative Coleman is campaigning on fiscal issues and contrasts his background as CEO of the freight company CV International Inc. with that of the 51-year-old Lewis as lawyer and politician.

In the special election for Herring's 33rd District, the picture is what one GOP activist dubbed "a Greek tragedy." John Whitbeck, a conservative and 10th District Republican chairman, is carrying his party's banner. But former Republican state Delegate Joe May is also running as an independent.

"Joe and John are both conservative and differ on nothing except the transportation bill,"Davis told Newsmax, noting that May supported a measure to provide more than $6 billion in roads and infrastructure that passed the legislature last year when he chaired the House Transportation Committee. Conservatives opposed the measure and May's support was a key to his defeat for renomination last year by fellow Republican Dave LaRock.

But, as Davis recalled, "Joe was willing to run for the Senate as a Republican if the nomination would have been decided by a 'firehouse primary'" — in which the party pays for the ballots and primary and there is one site for voting. But Davis said the party leadership "decided on a convention that [May] would never have won and that's why he's gone independent. He's told that to a number of people."

Republicans sympathetic to May's situation note that, unlike their counterparts in the 33rd District, GOP leaders in the 6th District opted for the "firehouse primary" and are now firmly united behind nominee Coleman.

In contrast to the fractured Republican picture, Democrats are strongly united behind Leesburg lawyer Jennifer Wexton, who lost a bid for Loudon County Commonwealth attorney in 2011. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has spent more than $150,000 on her behalf and Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia has campaigned strongly for Wexton.

The outcome of the two races is still uncertain. But there is little argument that Democrats can win both and, if they do, it will have a political impact beyond the borders of Virginia.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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