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Low-turnout expected for two Virginia House races today

Rosalind Helderman

Voters go to the polls today in two special elections for the Virginia House of Delegates. Both seats are considered reliably Republican, vacated when incumbents Del. Matt Lohr (R-Harrisonburg) and Del. Sam Nixon (R-Chesterfield) resigned from the House to take jobs in the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).

Powerful new maps from the Virginia Public Access Project that track voting history down to a precinct level illustrate just how strongly Republican the voting trend has been in each of these districts. For instance, in November, McDonnell won District 26--Lohr's old seat which encompasses Harrisonburg and surrounding areas--with 71 percent of the vote. Only a single precinct backed Deeds.

Likewise, the district backed Republicans John McCain for president in 2008 and Jerry Kilgore for governor in 2005, years that were otherwise fairly good for Democrats in some parts of Virginia.

The numbers look a bit more mixed in District 27 in Chesterfield, home to today's other special election. Though McDonnell won the district with 60 percent of the vote last year, it backed Barack Obama in 2008 and split 50/48 for Kilgore over Gov. Tim Kaine in 2005.

So why, then, are the Democrats putting most of their attention and effort in District 26 today?

The Democratic Party of Virginia has spent $60,000 on mail pieces for Harrisonburg Mayor Kai Degner in his race against Republican Tony Wilt. Over the weekend, two busloads of volunteers trekked down to the district from Northern Virginia. The party's operations director is spending the day there today.

By contrast, the party is making some phone calls for planning commissioner and local party chairman William Brown in Chesterfield and has some staff helping out. But it's spent little money on Brown's contest against well-funded Republican optometrist Roxanne Robinson.

The strategy drew questions from Democratic blogger Ben Tribbett today, who said he couldn't understand spending money in District 26 but barely competing in District 27, which he said is the kind of area the party will have to win if it wants take back the Republican-led House.

Party executive director Dave Mills defended the decision today, insisting the party is helping both Degner and Brown but saying that Degner is the kind of candidate who could pull off a surprise win in a low-turnout race. Denger's base of support lies in the city of Harrisonburg, the district's one Democratic-leaning area. He raised considerable money for his own effort and he has built ties to grassroots and elected Democrats around the state.

"There's no question that, by the numbers, the Chesterfield seat is probably better for us," Mills said. "But we don't live in a numbers world."

He said Degner represents "a new, results orientated, progressive, young person in the city of Harrisonburg" adding "my gut says, he could pull out a surprise."

Plus, Mills said the party had an important message to send by backing the enthusiastic young mayor: "If we're not there for a guy like that, it really doesn't inspire other people down the road to get involved in Democratic party politics. They start thinking, 'I've done everything I can to fight in a district drawn for a Republican and turn this seat blue, and no matter what I do, the party won't be there for me.'"

Meanwhile, the GOP expressed confidence in wins today in both districts. "Both of these areas have voting histories we like," said Republican Party of Virginia spokesman Garren Shipley. "It's a special election. It's in the middle of the summer and we just had primaries around the state. The turnout will be low. But even with low turnout the trend definitely looks favorably on us."

What to make of the Democrats decision to concentrate on the district where voting trends have been less favorable to them?

"That's their choice," said RPV executive director Dave Rexrode. "The Chesterfield seat is the one the President carried. But it's their prerogative."

By Rosalind Helderman  |  June 15, 2010; 10:26 AM ET
Categories:  Election 2010 , General Assembly 2010 , House of Delegates , Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman  
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I'm tired of all media outlets looking at the VA 26 special election getting the fund raising amount wrong. I understand that Harrisonburg reporters don't have that much experience, but the Post and Rosalind Helderman should know better. How hard is it to look at VPAP and see that the Degner campaign gave X amount to the House caucus for "campaign services" and DPVA gave the same amount to the campaign for in-kinded mail? Candidates do it to receive the non-profit bulk mail rate. This is especially easy when VPAP tells you that "campaign services" is usually a codeword for this practice. Kai Degner only had a little bit more than $10K donated from House and Senate Caucus members. All of Tony Wilt's mail, his paid canvass, and some of his actual staff came from RPVA.

Posted by: jgreenberg09 | June 16, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

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