Virgina Legislative Election Brings Record Spending

 

Virginia, once the hub of the old Confederacy and now a center of the high tech industry, will elect a new general assembly on Nov. 2. Republicans hope to win control of the lawmaking body for the first time since 1883. While the battle in the Old Dominion state has not gotten a lot of national attention, campaign spending tops $16 million -- a record for Virginia -- and professional politicians will be watching the outcome closely.

Never have so many given so much money to sway so few races.

With control of the General Assembly likely to be decided by a handful of contests next month in the vote-rich Washington, D.C. suburbs and the state's southeast Tidewater region, Virginia's usually sleepy, friends-and-neighbors legislative elections have awakened the attention -- and dollars -- of national political check-writers.

For example, the National Republican Congressional Committee, headed by Northern Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, has poured nearly $250,000 into targeted races for the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate. That's pushed contributions from out-of-state GOP sources to more than $400,000.

All told, fund-raising in the assembly campaign cycle has breached $16 million, a record.

Such heavy spending is a reminder that on the cusp of the new century -- and the approaching reapportionment -- legislative elections are no longer small beer.

In Virginia, the campaigns are all the more tantalizing because a single House seat stands between total GOP domination of state government and a new era of one-party politics.

Republican power and influence in Virginia's state capital has steadily accelerated since the party won back the governorship in 1993. Seemingly absolute Democratic majorities in the assembly have disappeared with the continuing growth of a state -- now the nation's 12th largest -- that just over a generation ago was still ruled by rural segregationist bosses like U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr.

A fast-growing economy, largely symbolized by the booming information-technology industry in Northern Virginia, and widespread satisfaction with the current Republican governor would seem to bode well for the GOP.

But a high-decibel debate over delays in road construction and Republican coziness with the gun lobby following the Columbine High School massacre could hurt the GOP in the same quiet expanses of tract housing where they've scored their greatest gains.

Since 1998, the 140-member assembly has been split almost evenly between the political parties, forcing the House and Senate to adopt elaborate power-sharing plans that, at times, have brought the legislative process to a grinding halt.

Working majorities in both chambers could restore a measure of efficiency to a legislature that -- because power has been scattered much like dandelion seeds on a windy day -- has seen a proliferation of subcommittees and committee co-chairmanships.

But, as operatives for both political parties see it in the final weeks of the campaign, Virginia potentially faces more of the same: Tied or closely divided bodies; not to mention, the accompanying small-bore gridlock.

In the Senate, Republicans hold a 21-19 edge, ending a 20-20 division when Gov. Jim Gilmore enticed a senior Democrat two years ago to give up his seat for a high-paying government job and sweetened retirement. That led to a special election -- won by the GOP -- and new Senate majority.

A similar gambit by Gilmore in the House failed. And Democrats, taking advantage of the absence of three newly elected Republicans, returned Thomas W. Moss Jr., a sharply partisan Norfolk trial lawyer, to the speakership. But once the missing Republicans were seated and the chamber's lone independent agreed to caucus with the GOP, Virginia's was truly a House divided -- 50-50.

Approaching the mid-point of his non-renewable four-year term, Gilmore -- sitting atop a personal political-action committee full to bursting with nearly $3 million -- is determined that his legacy include the first Republican takeover of the General Assembly since 1883. Probability favors the GOP, but only to a point.

In the cramped, blue-and-buff-colored House, the retirements of several senior Democrats from GOP-leaning districts give the Republicans a chance to pick up at least two seats in Central Virginia horse country and quiet coves of the upper Chesapeake Bay. But Republicans could lose an open seat in Southwest Virginia, where there's a long tradition of combative, two-party politics.

Meantime, another campaign is underway in the backstairs of the Jefferson-designed statehouse -- for House speaker.

Three Republicans are openly vying for the post. Moss, speaker since 1991, remains the Democrats' choice. But he's doomed with nothing less than a Democratic majority. A 50-50 House might turn to its longest-serving member and only independent, Lacey E. Putney, a Bedford lawyer who now organizes with the GOP.

In the Senate, where chumminess is as much as part of the chamber's atmosphere as the lordly wine-colored carpeting, gold architectural trim and dark, lift-top desks, perhaps a half-dozen seats are in play.

They include one held by the chamber's senior member, Stanley C. Walker, a white-haired Norfolk Democrat dogged by questions about his personal finances. The state's only female GOP senator, centrist Jane H. Woods from the Washington suburb of Fairfax, is caught in a three-way race. A breakaway hard-right Republican is running as an independent and might pull enough votes from Woods to tip the seat to the Democrats.

And though it may mean little now to the electorate, the 1999 campaign could largely determine the political map for the decade ahead.

The delegates and senators who take office in January will draw new legislative boundaries in 2001. That means this year's gains -- and losses -- can be institutionalized, thus affirming the new Republican hegemony or perhaps laying the foundation for a Democratic comeback.

 
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