RICHMOND, Va. -
By winning consecutive gubernatorial races in 2001 and 2005 and knocking off an incumbent U.S. senator last year, Virginia Democrats defied the conventional wisdom that the Old Dominion is a reliably red state.
Now, the party hopes the momentum of recent statewide victories and the sagging popularity of a Republican president can help loosen the GOP's grip on control of the General Assembly in the Nov. 6 elections.
All 100 House of Delegates seats and 40 Senate seats are up for election. Republicans occupy 57 House seats and appear likely to retain a comfortable majority. But Democrats have a chance to seize control of the Senate and provide some needed legislative muscle for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat nearing the midpoint of his four-year term. The party that controls the Senate also could have an upper hand when the General Assembly draws new legislative and congressional district boundaries in 2011.
Democrats must gain four seats to end a decade of Republican control in the Senate.
They began the campaign targeting four GOP incumbents in districts carried by Kaine in 2005 and by Democrat Jim Webb in his 2006 defeat of incumbent U.S. Sen. George Allen (R). They also are waging competitive campaigns for four open seats that had been held by Republicans, including two who lost June primaries to more conservative challengers.
"We are competing in a whole bunch of races to get some good partners so we can get some more results," Kaine said Tuesday (Oct. 30) during a monthly appearance on Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP.
Veteran Republican strategist J. Scott Leake, who is working on the state Senate races, said he has "never gone into the last couple of weeks with that many seats in play."
Kaine has stopped short of predicting a Democratic takeover of the Senate, but is confident the party will pick up seats in both houses. The election's outcome could affect Kaine's ability to address a state budget shortfall and win legislative support for a targeted expansion of pre-kindergarten education, which the governor has identified as a top priority for the second half of his term.
Republicans have been cool to Kaine's pre-kindergarten plan and have criticized the governor for wanting to tap the state's "rainy-day" fund to help balance the budget. They also have attacked Democrats on illegal immigration, particularly in Northern Virginia , where voter unrest over the issue appears to be greatest.
But Kaine had an approval rating of 55 percent in a statewide poll released earlier this month by the Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. Only 34 percent approved of the General Assembly's performance.
Democrats hope to benefit from shifting voting patterns in the fast-growing suburbs of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads; from the popularity of Kaine and his predecessor, Democrat Mark Warner; and even from dissatisfaction with President Bush.
Kaine, like Warner, has been a prolific fund-raiser and generous contributor to Democratic campaigns. His political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward, has raised more than $3 million and had more than $1 million in the bank in mid-October that could be spent on the legislative races during the homestretch.
The legislative races are the most expensive in Virginia history. Democratic and Republican Senate candidates raised a combined total of nearly $31 million through Oct. 24, far exceeding the $13.5 million raised through the same period when the Senate was last elected in 2003.
Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport's Center for Public Policy, said Democrats have a chance "to maybe take the Senate by a seat."
"I think Democrats have done a good job essentially hammering Republican control of the General Assembly," Kidd said.
Democrats have bashed Republicans as the architects of a patchwork transportation funding plan that, among other things, imposes new "abusive driver fees" on Virginians who commit serious traffic offenses such as reckless and drunken driving. The fees only apply to drivers with Virginia licenses.
The fees account for a small percentage of the new transportation revenue but have triggered hostility in all corners of the state. Despite the fact that Kaine supported the fees and signed the transportation bill into law, Democratic lawmakers have cited the controversial penalties as a reason Republicans should be bounced from power in the legislature.
Republican leaders have punched back, insisting their emphasis on low taxes and limited government planted the seeds for the economic revival that occurred under Democratic governors Warner and Kaine, a period in which the state received national accolades for its fiscal management, business climate and schools.
"It all came from a booming economy that was built up over a decade of our pro-economic development legislation and policy," Leake, the GOP strategist, said.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who have feuded in the past, joined forces earlier this month for a statewide tour in which they claimed credit for funding transportation and blasted Democrats for opposing tough measures to punish illegal immigrants. House Republicans have pushed legislation that would prohibit public colleges from offering in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants
And some GOP leaders have criticized Kaine for refusing to sign agreements with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that would allow state police and other agencies to assist federal authorities in detaining and deporting illegal immigrants. Kaine said the state already has effective working relationships with ICE and insists the illegal immigration problem is a failure of the Bush administration, not Virginia's government.
Kaine seemed eager this week to have voters contrast Democratic leadership in Richmond with Republican rule in Washington, D.C.
"I think people like what we're doing," Kaine said in his radio appearance. "They like how Virginia is being run, especially as they look at the Capitol, look at the White House and see the way federal politics is going."
Kidd said it is unusual for Virginia Democrats to try nationalizing a state election, a tactic perhaps indicative of shifting political winds in the state.
"I don't think Democrats in Virginia have been in that position ever," Kidd said.