- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2011

The political battle for control of the Virginia Senate is taking shape as Democrats cling to a four-seat majority eyed by Republicans.

The GOP is trying to muscle its way back to the majority it lost in 2007, nominating candidates in all but five of 40 Senate districts and fueling campaigns with help from party heavyweights Gov. Bob McDonnell and House Speaker William J. Howell.

Republicans would have to gain two seats this year to reach a 20-20 split, which would tip the majority to their favor because tie-breaking votes go to Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican.

Democratic strategist Paul Goldman says Republicans now have momentum — outpacing their rival party in nominating and mobilizing candidates and generating energy.

“I think the Republicans are incredibly focused, and basically the Democrats are on the defense in most every place,” said Mr. Goldman, who managed L. Douglas Wilder’s campaign for governor and has consulted for former Gov. Tim Kaine. “It’s kind of like an army backed into the corner. You cannot afford too many losses.”

While Republicans have candidates running in 35 districts, Democrats have nominated candidates in 24 districts — two in addition to the 22 districts they now hold.

Republicans also have help from the governor. Mr. McDonnell had $1.9 million on hand on March 31, the most recent reporting deadline. And last week, he reported receiving $1.4 million in large contributions in the past three months to his Opportunity Virginia political action committee. Mr. Howell’s Dominion Leadership Trust PAC held more than $1 million.

In 2009, Republican won the governorship, the attorney general’s office and the lieutenant governor’s office. They won control of the state House in 1999. Winning control of the state Senate this November would encroach upon Virginia Democrats’ last bit of turf and likely boost the governor’s reputation nationally, Mr. Goldman said.

“I think McDonnell is really focused on getting the Senate back,” he said. “He’s going to raise a ton of money.”

The Democrats’ strategy is to hold on to their 22 seats and perhaps win one of two new districts created during redistricting last spring.

“We’re not trying to take 35 seats in the Senate,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “The overall goal is to retain the majority.”

There will be just five open seats — two in the newly created districts, two held by retiring Democrats and one being vacated by a Republican.

Democrats are considered likely to retain the Arlington and Alexandria districts held by retiring state Sens. Mrs. Whipple and Patricia S. Ticer.

Republicans are on course to retain retiring Sen. William Wampler’s 40th District seat, given the makeup of the district and that Democrats have yet to nominate anyone to run against GOP candidate Delegate Bill Carrico.

The two new districts should be the most competitive for the parties.

While Democrats largely redrew the Senate map, one of the transplanted districts was moved to the outer D.C. suburbs and the other was to the Lynchburg region — areas that lean Republican but could go to Democrats.

Mrs. Whipple said Democratic candidates have a shot, especially if former Delegate Dick Black wins the GOP primary in the 13th District, which includes parts of Loudoun and Prince William counties. Before losing his seat in 2005, Mr. Black was known as one of the most socially conservative House members.

“Our candidate is probably more in keeping with the feelings of the district in terms of being a moderate person,” she said, referring to Army veteran and small business owner Shawn Mitchell. “Dick Black comes with a lot of history.”