Virginia Notebook: Do Byrne, Feder Stand a Chance?
After they won control of the state Senate last month, Virginia Democrats were confident about their potential for future success, even in Republican-leaning areas.
But it took only a month for reality to set in. In many parts of Virginia, voters continue to have strong affection for Republicans.
In last week's special election to fill the seat of the late US. Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va) in the 1st Congressional District, Republican Del. Robert J. Wittman (R-Westmoreland) won 61percent of the vote in his matchup against Democrat Philip Forgit.
The 1st District, which stretches from Tidewater to southern Prince William County, leans Republican, so a Wittman victory had been expected. Even so, he did better than most Republicans and Democrats had foreseen, given President Bush's low approval ratings.
Forgit drew support from liberal bloggers but failed to attract much help from national Democrats. In the end, he received 37.percent of the vote, faring worse among 1st District voters than Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) did against Bush in the 2004 presidential race.
Wittman's easy victory could spell trouble for Democrats, who are hoping to pick up one or two congressional seats in Northern Virginia next year.
In the 10th District, which stretches from Fairfax County to the upper Shenandoah Valley, Rep. Frank R. . Wolf (R) is girding for a potentially tough reelection battle.
In the 11th District, which includes parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, Democrats are eyeing the seat of Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R).
Davis has not announced whether he plans to seek reelection. Even if he does, Democrats say he will be vulnerable because Fairfax County has been trending Democratic.
But the results in the 1st District should force Democrats to think long and hard about their prospects.
The 10th and 11th districts are less Republican than the 1st, according to the partisan index in the Almanac of American Politics, but both were drawn by a GOP-controlled General Assembly and are favorable to Republicans.
A growing population has meant that more Democrats and independents have moved into both districts in recent years. But Republicans still have an overall advantage in both districts, according to the index.
In 2006, Davis and Wolf were easily reelected, even as their districts went for James Webb (D) over Republican George Allen in the U.S. Senate race.
A majority of residents in both districts also voted for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
But Democratic candidates sense an opportunity next year because of recent success in those districts by Webb and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
In the 11th, former representative Rep. Leslie L. Byrne and Doug Denneny, former naval commander, are seeking the Democratic nomination. Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) is also looking at the race.
Byrne has early support from unions and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but there are questions in Richmond and Washington about whether she can win a general election.
Byrne represented the 11th District in Congress from 1992 to 1994. But Davis won the seat for Republicans in 1994. He beat Byrne by 8 points that year, even as Democrat Charles S. Robb was trouncing Republican Oliver North in the district by 15 points in the Senate race that year.
Some Democrats also question whether Byrne, an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 2005, could hurt former governor Mark R. Warner's (D) Senate bid next year.
In 1996, Byrne challenged Warner for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. When she dropped out after it became clear that Warner would win the nomination, the Associated Press quoted her as saying: "To quote my favorite philosopher, Lily Tomlin, 'If you win a rat race, you're still a rat'?"
Could there be a more effective Republican campaign ad against Warner next year than one noting that a Northern Virginia Democratic congressional candidate once referred to him as a "rat?"?
In an interview, Byrne says she was referring to the state Democratic Party, not Warner. She argues that her message of change will resonate with voters, despite efforts to portray her as being too liberal on many issues.
"If you are interested in change, I don't think being too progressive is a bad thing," said Byrne, who is also a former state senator. "The status quo isn't working; people understand that. Whether I have been in Congress or the state legislature, I have been an agent of change."
In the 10th, Georgetown University professor Judy Feder, who lost to Wolf in 2006, is facing Mike Turner in the Democratic primary.
Feder is a heavy favorite to win the nomination. Unlike Byrne, who struggled to raise money during her run for lieutenant governor, Feder is a prolific fundraiser. In her unsuccessful race last year, she raised $1.6.million. The former Clinton administration official has out-raised Wolf so far this year.
"I know, from what I experienced last year, what it takes to win this race," Feder said. "I don't think anyone can top my background, my experience for commitment for change."
A big unknown is what effect, if any, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) would have on Feder's and Byrne's chances if she is the Democratic nominee for president.
Some strategists say that Clinton will help other female candidates because she will drive up turnout among women. Others question whether a Clinton candidacy would motivate large numbers of voters to come out against her, which could hurt other Democratic candidates.
Either way, Byrne and Feder have reasons to be optimistic about their chances if they are the nominees.
Byrne racked up a 16,000-vote margin in the 11th District in her losing bid for lieutenant governor in 2005. Feder is known as a tireless campaigner who impressed Democrats in Washington last year.
But both have embraced a curious strategy of reaching out to liberal bloggers who often attack Democrats they view as being too moderate, including Connolly.
If Democrats want to win next year, the party is going to have to be unified.
Liberal bloggers may have helped Webb win the Democratic nomination for Senate last year, but they have yet to prove they can help a Virginia candidate win a general election in a district in which a majority of voters are more used to voting Republican.
Just ask Forgit.
To get your fix of Virginia politics throughout the week, check out blog.washingtonpost.com/virginiapolitics.
December 19, 2007; 12:29 PM ET
Categories: Election 2008/Congress , Election 2008/President , Election 2008/U.S. Senate , Frank R. Wolf , Leslie L. Byrne , Thomas M. Davis III , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook
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