- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

RICHMOND — Only a few House of Delegates races are viewed as competitive, virtually guaranteeing that the next governor will work with a Republican-controlled legislature for at least the next two years, political analysts and leaders of both major parties say.

Republicans hold 60 seats and Democrats hold 38 in the House. Two seats are occupied by independents who generally vote with the Republicans.

The Senate, which is not up for election until 2007, has 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

In the Nov. 8 elections for the House, Democrats aim to build on electoral successes. They gained three seats in 2003 to reverse a 28-year erosion of their House ranks, then picked up another seat in a special election last year.

Republicans, however, say the Democrats have reached their maximum influence and that any change in the partisan makeup of the House will be negligible.

“Between one loss and two wins is pretty realistic,” House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith of Salem said of Republicans’ prospects. “I don’t see a huge surge in either direction.”

Fifty-one seats are unopposed, and 10 incumbents face only independent or minor-party challengers. A dozen open seats — six Republican, six Democratic — have been created by 10 retirements and two incumbent losses in the June primaries.

Delegate Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the party’s goal is a three-seat gain.

Under House rules, that would give Democrats an additional seat on each of the standing committees.

“We are confident that we will achieve our goal,” Mr. Moran said.

Former Delegate C. Richard Cranwell of Roanoke County, chairman of the state Democratic Party, is even more optimistic. He said a gain of seven or eight seats is not out of the question, but even a leap like that still would leave Democrats in the minority.

“I expect there’s a number of people who think three is realistic, but there are a couple of races under the radar that are going to surprise some folks,” Mr. Cranwell said.

Democrats are counting on a boost from the popularity of Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, and voter dissatisfaction with President Bush.

Mr. Cranwell said polls have shown that two-thirds of Virginians think the state is headed in the right direction but that the nation is headed in the wrong direction — an endorsement of Mr. Warner’s performance and an indictment of Mr. Bush’s.

“Contrary to popular conventional wisdom, George Bush is not helping Republicans now but hurting them,” Mr. Cranwell said.

A key issue in many of the contested races is the $1.4 billion tax increase championed by Mr. Warner and passed by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in 2004 to end a budget stalemate.

Democrats are emphasizing the issue in races against conservative Republicans who opposed the tax increase, which polls show most Virginians support.

“In the races where we’re challenging incumbents, their opposition to the budget reform is an important difference between the candidates,” Mr. Moran said.

Republicans argue that the state’s budget surplus shows the tax increases weren’t necessary. They also are pushing a legislative package that includes repealing Virginia’s estate tax, cracking down on methamphetamine labs and creating a back-to-school sales-tax “holiday.”

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