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GOP holds slight edge in deciding Va. Senate race

Win gives Republicans effective majority in upper chamber

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Republican hopes for an effective majority in the Senate and a historic power grab in Richmond were pinned late Tuesday on a central Virginia race in which a GOP challenger clung to an 86-vote lead with a final count not expected until Wednesday.

The battle for the 40-member state Senate was far tighter than the GOP had hoped and many political observers had expected, with Republicans who had identified as many as 10 winnable seats decisively winning just one.

The deciding race left former detective and Army Ranger Bryce E. Reeves, a Republican, with just a double-digit lead over longtime incumbent Sen. R. Edward Houck, a Democrat, out of more than 45,000 ballots cast in the conservative-leaning district around Fredericksburg, Va.

Complicating matters, the unofficial vote tally assembled by the Virginia Board of Elections was at odds with a vote tally released Tuesday night by the Associated Press, which had Mr. Houck ahead by 204 votes. The news organization later adjusted its total to reflect the preliminary numbers from the elections boards and deemed the race "too close to call."

An unknown number of provisional ballots had yet to be counted, a task elections officials say takes place after Election Day. Because the candidates were separated by less than 1 percent of the vote, Mr. Houck under state law also would be entitled to request a recount.

Nevertheless, the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia early Wednesday issued a statement and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in a tweet congratulated Mr. Reeves on his victory.

Mr. McDonnell also issued a statement early Wednesday saying that Republicans had picked up two seats in the Senate and expanded their majority in the House of Delegates by at least six seats, "the highest number Republicans have ever had in that body."

"Tonight, Virginia voters have made history," he said.

Republican control of the Senate would complete a GOP sweep of state government that began in 2009, giving the party a 20-20 tie in the General Assembly's upper chamber, with GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling casting tie-breaking votes as needed.

Republicans had been hopeful that Virginia voters, notorious for eschewing the party in power in Washington, would deliver for them, after GOP candidates won the top three statewide elected offices in 2009 and picked up three congressional seats in the 2010 midterms.

Party leaders speculated that a sluggish national economy and increasingly poor job-approval ratings for President Obama would help them win control of the governor's mansion and both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in a decade and only the second time since the Civil War.

Democrats began the day with a 22-18 advantage in the Senate. Holding on to the Senate would provide a Democratic Party badly in need of momentum with some good news heading into next year's elections, when Mr. Obama looks to repeat his 2008 win in a state critical to his re-election chances.

After the votes were counted, several seats that Republicans had identified as competitive were still held by Democrats.

In Northern Virginia, incumbent senators in close races held their ground. Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat, fended off a late charge from Republican Tom Gordy, the president of a military nonprofit.

Longtime Sen. Linda "Toddy" Puller, Fairfax Democrat, narrowly defeated former Delegate and ousted Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick, who was attempting a political comeback.

David W. Marsden, Fairfax Democrat, will get a full term after defeating Republican Jason Flanary. Mr. Marsden had won a special election last year to fill the Senate seat vacated by Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II after Mr. Cuccinelli was elected Virginia attorney general.

In one of the most competitive races in the state, freshman Sen. George Barker, Fairfax Democrat, downed Republican challenger Miller Baker.

"Those are seats that have to remain in the Democrat column in order for Democrats to have the support need going into next year," said Ben Marchi, former state director for Americans for Prosperity Virginia.

The GOP was hoping to capitalize on a resurgence in the bellwether state that began after Mr. Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than 40 years to win Virginia.

Republican leaders had stressed organization. The party fielded 16 candidates against Democrats' 20 incumbents, while Democrats challenged just three Republican incumbents in races for 16 GOP-held seats.

Despite an outpouring of cash, their only clear victory came when Bill Stanley, a Republican, defeated longtime incumbent Sen. Wm. Roscoe Reynolds, Martinsville Democrat.

Mr. McDonnell, whose Opportunity Virginia PAC spent more than $3.6 million to support Republican candidates, said that regardless of the outcome, the new Senate would help him further his goals.

"For me, I'm going to be doing the same things I did the last two years I did the first two, which is talking about jobs, economic development, government reform, energy, transportation, higher ed, K-12 — that'll be my focus," he said before the elections.

But Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University, said that Mr. McDonnell, who has thus far governed largely from the center-right, could start to feel pressure on his right flank if presented with a GOP with increased power.

"Until now, with the opposition party controlling one house, he's had good political coverage," Mr. Rozell said. "He could always claim that he's led in a bipartisan way."

It's unclear what effect a 20-20 tie in the Senate could have on committee assignments, which are set by the party in power. The Virginia Senate has long been known for collegiality between the members of the rival political parties, but it remains to be seen whether that spirit of years past will give way to partisanship.

"What worked in the '90s may not work now," Mr. Rozell said. "There was a bit more inclination among many legislators to work together and forge compromises. But many people have pointed out, quite accurately, I think, the increased partisanship of this era makes [that] increasingly difficult."

Republicans did manage to score a major coup in the House of Delegates.

In the most notable race, Republican Charles D. Poindexter, Franklin Republican, defeated House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong, Henry Republican, whose seat was moved to the Northern Virginia suburbs as part of the decennial redistricting process.

Kyle Kondik with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics cautioned not to read too much about next year's prospects into the Tuesday elections.

"It is a different electorate next year," he said. "It doesn't have to be a bellwether for future years, and I don't think it is. We don't need a state Senate race to tell us the president is in trouble next year. The president is in trouble next year. I think it's apples and oranges."

Though Mr. Obama won the state with 53 percent of the vote in 2008, his poll numbers have sunk underwater recently in the state. Quinnipiac University and Roanoke College polls released in September put his approval rating at 40 percent and 39 percent, respectively.

"That will be the [Republican] message," said Mr. Rozell. "It has some truth to it, but it's not a complete picture of the election results."

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