- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

RICHMOND Republicans and Democrats agree that Republicans, who have controlled redistricting for the first time this year, will strengthen their grip on the House of Delegates in next month's elections. But that doesn't mean the campaign lacks intrigue.
Will legislative races in Northern Virginia be affected by the gubernatorial candidates' fight over a sales-tax referendum to pay for transportation improvements for the Washington suburbs?
Can Democrats hold their losses to a minimum by persuading voters to punish the Republicans for this year's state budget impasse?
Does a public preoccupied with terrorist attacks, anthrax scares and U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan even care about these races?
Those are among the questions that will be answered Nov. 6 when Virginia voters elect 100 delegates, as well as a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
"For anything below the governor's race, it is a bigger challenge than usual this year to get the attention of the voters," said Tom Morris, a political analyst and president of Emory & Henry College.
However, operatives for both parties say the public is coming around. J. Scott Leake, director of the Joint Republican Caucus, said unexpectedly large crowds showed up on a recent campaign swing by Republican leaders through southside and southwest Virginia.
"There's a pent-up desire to get out and do something," Mr. Leake said. "For some people, it's going to the movies or playing miniature golf. For the party faithful, it's going to campaign events."
G. Baker Ellett, director of the House Democratic Caucus, said some of his party's incumbents are getting more attention than usual "because they've been communicating with their constituents be calm, remain united, help out where you can" in the aftermath of last month's terrorist attacks.
The biggest factor in the House elections, however, is clearly reapportionment. Republicans redrew legislative boundaries to their advantage this year after taking undisputed control of the General Assembly in the 1990s.
"A redistricting year might be the time when legislators have more control over the outcome of the election than the voters do," Mr. Morris said.
A dozen Democrats, including such prominent leaders as Minority Leader C. Richard Cranwell of Roanoke County and former House Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. of Norfolk, retired after they were given unappealing districts.
Republicans control 53 of the 100 House seats. Mr. Morris said the combination of retirements and new, Republican-friendly districts across the state could enable the party to expand its majority to as many as 60 seats.
Mr. Ellett said that seems like a reasonable number. Mr. Leake said Republicans will gain "a comfort margin that will be a huge political difference compared to the first two years" of Republican control, but he refused to predict a specific number of seats.
Democrats will try to minimize the losses by hammering Republicans on the budget-impasse issue in the final two weeks of the campaign, Mr. Ellett said. Democrats say the Republican-controlled legislature's unprecedented failure to make midcourse corrections in the two-year budget shows the Republican Party is not ready to lead.
"They criticized and harped and hemmed and hawed for years, and then they finally got control of state government and they drove it into a ditch," Mr. Ellett said. "We're going to hit that message hard."
Mr. Leake said voters are more interested in candidates' ideas than rehashing the budget debacle.
"I don't see it being relevant to anything, and I wonder why the Democrats are using it so much," he said. "Maybe it's the only thing they have to talk about."
In traffic-choked Northern Virginia, some Republican candidates could be hurt by the Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark L. Earley's opposition to a sales-tax increase referendum for transportation projects.
The issue has so divided the region's Republican lawmakers that one, Sen. Warren Barry of Fairfax County, last week took the extraordinary step of endorsing Mr. Earley's opponent, Mark R. Warner. The Democrat favors the referendum, which has broad appeal among the region's frustrated commuters.
Northern Virginia incumbents facing tough challenges include Republicans John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. and Thomas M. Bolvin, and Democrat Kristen J. Amundson.
Democrats James M. Shuler, Benny Keister and John H. Tate Jr. are in tight races in the Southwest. Mr. Leake predicts substantial Republican gains in that region and in Southside, in part because of Democratic retirements.
Two independents are believed to have reasonably good chances of winning open seats:
John Conrad, a former vice mayor of Richmond, has the backing of retiring Republican Del. Anne G. "Panny" Rhodes. Republican Bradley P. Marrs and Democrat Edward B. Barber, a member of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, are the other candidates.
Petersburg Mayor Rosalyn Dance is running as an independent for the seat being vacated by Democrat Jay W. DeBoer. Miss Dance was recruited by Republican House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. to run against Democrat Fenton L. Bland.

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