Democrats Try to Hang on to Slim Majority in Virginia Senate

GOP not in danger of losing House majority

After redrawing Virginia's state Senate districts to their liking and pumping millions of dollars into races to protect targeted incumbents, Democrats face a tough challenge Tuesday keeping their slim Senate majority.

Only three Democrats are uncontested in seeking Senate re-election while 11 Republicans have no opponent. Seventeen Democratic incumbents have challengers, while only four sitting Republican senators have opponents.

In brand new districts and without independent polling, there's more uncertainty than any election in the past 20 years, the last time state House and Senate elections were held months after redistricting.

Some voters will encounter new names on their ballots because of reapportionment, and election officials statewide say they expect more voter confusion than normal.

Virginia's most powerful political figures -- Gov. Bob McDonnell leading the GOP, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner for the Democrats -- began a frantic final weekend of travel to help their candidates to the finish line.

A Republican net gain of three seats would end a four-year Democratic Senate majority and put state government under total GOP control. Republicans already hold a strong majority in the House of Delegates and are in no danger of losing it Tuesday. McDonnell's lease on the governor's office runs into 2014.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw insists Democratic incumbents are in strong positions to retain or even expand their 22-seat advantage in the 40-member chamber.

“Our backs aren't to the wall, theirs are,” the Fairfax Democrat said in a recent interview.

Whether state policymaking takes a sharp right turn under a GOP-controlled Senate will likely depend on how a half-dozen Democratic incumbents fare against strong, well-funded Republican challengers.

Sen. Phillip Puckett, a Democrat who has served 3 terms from Russell County, rebuked President Barack Obama after challenger Adam Light and GOP groups asserted Puckett was Obama's man in coal country.

The Democratic president's failed cap-and-trade clean energy legislation is deeply unpopular in Appalachian mining regions. Republicans exploited it to oust U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher in southwestern Virginia last fall.

Democratic groups have rushed almost $215,000 into Puckett's campaign in the last nine days, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit tracker of money in state politics.

Sen. George Barker, of Fairfax, chief sponsor of the Democratic Senate redistricting plan, is in a close contest with Republican Miller Baker, a race likely to be complicated by the similarity of the candidates' surnames.

Barker, like Puckett, has received large, last-minute donations totaling $215,000 from the state Democratic Party and the Senate Democratic Caucus since Oct. 27. Baker received about one-fourth that much from the state GOP over the same period.

Together, the two campaigns have raised and spent about $1.5 million.

Sen. R. Edward Houck, of Spotsylvania, who has vanquished GOP challengers to win each of his seven Senate terms, is in perhaps his toughest battle yet, against Republican Bryce Reeves.

Houck -- the pro-choice chairman of the Senate Education and Health Committee, where anti-abortion and school prayer legislation and other priorities of the religious right usually die -- has been targeted by social conservatives and anti-abortion activists.

An anti-Houck flier produced independently by No Excuse Ministries asks, “Would you support killing African-American babies?” It's a slap at Houck's backing from Planned Parenthood and efforts in the early 20th century by its founder, Margaret Sanger, to make birth control available for black women in the segregated South.

Houck and Reeves have each raised and spent more than $1 million.

The marquee race in rural Southside Virginia pits two incumbents against each other. Democrat Roscoe Reynolds of Henry County is fighting for a fourth term from the 20th District against freshman Republican Bill Stanley of Franklin County.

After redistricting moved the boundaries of Stanley's old 19th District, he moved his address about 10 miles and filed to run for Reynolds' seat.

In a region hit hard by the demise of American furniture and textile manufacturing, the Reynolds-Stanley skirmish has been waged almost exclusively over jobs and the economy. Martinsville's September unemployment rate of 16.7 percent was Virginia's highest.

Complicating the race for Stanley is the independent candidacy of tea party activist Jeff Evans, which could dilute conservative support for Stanley.

First-term Democratic Sen. John Miller, of Newport News, is another prime Republican target. The state Republican Party, independent of GOP challenger Mickey Chohany, spent $40,000 to air television ads last week in Hampton Roads markets attacking Miller.

In Democrat-friendly Roanoke, Sen. John Edwards is fighting a difficult and determined challenge from Republican Delegate David Nutter of Christiansburg, in another race where spending has topped $1 million.

A minor headache for Edwards, Democratic and GOP strategists say, is polling that has found some voters confuse Edwards with the disgraced former U.S. senator from North Carolina of the same name.

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