Both Parties Tout Their Young State Lawmakers

Posted February 15, 2008 at 6:44pm

After two major statewide victories in three years — and a strong possibility of one more come November — Democrats in Virginia have made much of the “purpling” they say is taking place these days in the once solidly red Commonwealth.

[IMGCAP(1)]Those victories, state Democrats say, have given the party its swagger back and opened the door for younger rising stars to build on the momentum that has already been gained.

Yet despite wins by Gov. Tim Kaine (D) in 2005 and Sen. Jim Webb (D) in 2006 and the juggernaut that is former Gov. Mark Warner’s (D) Senate campaign, Old Dominion Republicans say they don’t really see any major shift in the tectonic plates that lie below the politics of Virginia.

“They think [Virginia] is purpling because they are so influenced by the Washington, D.C., media and the immediate area right around Washington, that Northern Virginia area” — where state Democrats have seen their fastest growth in recent years — Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Hager said last week. “We need to compete in Northern Virginia to be competitive statewide, but I don’t think it’s the end all.”

Just take a look at the state’s delegation in the House of Representatives, Republicans argue. The Commonwealth has gone from having six Democrats and five Republicans in the House in 2000 to just three Democrats and eight Republicans today.

And Republicans say that, as it has always done, the party is raising a strong crop of political talent, some of whom

already are making an impact on the Congressional playing field.

Take newly elected Rep. Rob Wittman (R), for example. Three years ago Wittman, now 49, was serving on local municipal boards before he first ran and won a seat in the House of Delegates. Last December, he won a special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R) in the conservative 1st district, which spans from Newport News and Hampton up to the outer suburbs of Washington.

One Virginia GOP operative said that going into the 1st district GOP nominating convention last year, Wittman wasn’t necessarily everybody’s No. 1 choice but was probably everybody’s No. 2 choice. He was “new blood,” the operative said — someone who was able to bring together several different factions that had developed heading into the nominating convention last fall. After winning the nomination, Wittman quickly lined up support from state and national leaders and easily defeated his Democratic opponent in the special election, and he’s expected to go on to win a full term this fall.

Besides Wittman, state Republican officials say several other strong candidates are currently being groomed in the state Legislature, including state Sen. Robert Hurt, 38, and Del. Chris Saxman, 45.

Saxman, who is based in Staunton, is a particularly interesting rising star not only because his name was mentioned early on as a potential Senate opponent to Warner this cycle, but also because very early in the presidential primary campaign he cast his lot with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) while most of the rest of state party elite were lining up behind candidates who have since dropped out of the race.

As the campaigns of other White House candidates unraveled, Virginia Republicans became Johnny-come-latelies to McCain’s camp, “and all of a sudden Saxman, who was already a darling of conservatives and had also shown a strong willingness to work across the aisle … he found himself on top of the heap,” said for Virginia GOP party spokesman Shaun Kenney.

Saxman resides in Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R) 6th district, but that could change in future cycles. It remains to be seen how Congressional lines will be drawn after the 2010 Census, especially if Democrats, who already control the state Senate, are able to retain the governorship and win control of the House of Delegates in the Commonwealth’s 2009 off-year elections.

In the 2008 Congressional cycle, state and national Democrats are rallying behind two 33-year-old candidates who are running uphill battles in districts where Democrats are hoping they can expand the Congressional playing field outside the three districts that make up Northern Virginia.

In the central-Virginia 5th district, attorney Tom Perriello, who is known for his work with nonprofit groups, is challenging Rep. Virgil Goode (R) in a race that Goode recently admitted to local papers might be the toughest of his Congressional career.

In the Virginia Beach-based 2nd district, businessman and former diplomat Glenn Nye is taking on Rep. Thelma Drake (R) in a seat that Democrats say has only gotten better for them after Drake’s slim 5,000-vote victory in 2006.

Nye was not necessarily every Democrat’s first choice to challenge Drake. Last year, some party operatives were holding out hope that state Secretary of Finance Jody Wagner — who ran in the 2nd district in 2000 but lost an open-seat race to Republican Ed Schrock — would take another shot at the seat. Wagner, 52, managed to garner 48 percent of the vote against Schrock and outraised him by a slim margin. She is still a player in the state Democratic Party and is expected to take another look at a Congressional bid one day.

Like their Republican opponents, Democrats in Virginia also are looking to the state Legislature as a proving ground for their rising stars. Though she lost her tight state Senate race to Republican Jill Holtzman Vogel in the 27th district last fall, Democrats expect to see more of Democratic nominee Karen Schultz in future cycles, especially after she came so close in a district that favored President Bush in 2004 by an almost 2-1 margin.

Another Democratic up-and-comer who stepped into the spotlight recently is Richmond-based Del. Jennifer McClellan, 35, who had the honor of introducing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) at the party’s annual Jefferson Jackson dinner earlier this month. McClellan, a lawyer who is the first vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, earned a few warm words of praise from Clinton at the dinner.

One Virginia Democratic consultant said McClellan “has got a very progressive record. She is a corporate attorney and somewhat high-profile. … People just expect Jennifer has an interest [in higher office]. And within the Democratic Party, she fits a profile that is appealing.”