State Senate Race Primer (or, how Republicans can get to 20)

Congratulations to Republican Senate Caucus Leader Tommy Norment, and Republican Leader Pro Tempore Ryan McDougle, and Senators Frank Wagner, Jeff McWaters, Steve Martin, Walter Stosch, Harry Blevins, Steve Newman, Emmett Hanger, Mark Obenshain, and Richard Stuart on your re-election!

Republicans are already, even before really starting this campaign, halfway to gaining a majority in the state Senate with 11 unchallenged seats.

But that doesn’t mean they still don’t have an up-hill challenge to get to at least a 20-20 split, with the LG as the tie-breaker.

First, here are the challenged Republican incumbents:

10th District: Sen. John Watkins faces Democrat David Bernard. As of August 10, Watkins has a $211k to $4k cash on hand advantage, and significant donor support in this district outside of Richmond. Consider this a GOP hold.

15th District: Sen. Frank Ruff is being challenged by independent Gary Thomas in this sprawling district. Thomas has low name ID and no donor support. GOP hold.

19th District: Sen. Ralph Smith is being challenged by independent former Sen. Brandon Bell. Smith defeated Bell in the 2007 Republican primary. Even if Bell wins, he’ll likely caucus with the GOP. GOP hold.

27th District: Sen. Jill Vogel faces Shaun Broy. Shaun who? GOP hold.

This brings the GOP number up to 15.

Next, let’s look at open seats:

13th District: Former Del. Dick Black faces political newcomer Shawn Mitchell. Black has a well-documented history of government service, including military service in Vietnam, high name recognition, served eight years in the General Assembly, and works very hard. His opponent, Mitchell, is also touting his record of combat service and that he is a small business owner. Black has raised significantly more money than Mitchell due to the primary campaign and has a $30k to $8k advantage in COH as of Aug 10 (not sure how much was spent by Black in the waning parts of the nomination fight though). The theme from the Mitchell campaign is that Black is too controversial for the district:

“We know from Dick Black’s eight years in Richmond that he is more interested in causing controversy than solving problems and will put his social agenda ahead of fixing the economy and creating jobs in Loudoun and Prince William Counties,” Mitchell wrote in a press release regarding Black’s victory.

This seat is important for the GOP, as it is the relocated district of former Sen. Fred Quayle, a Republican. The early advantage goes to Black.

22nd District: Prosecutor and Louisa Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Garrett squares off against exterminator Bert Dodson from Lynchburg in a contest that — on the surface — appears to lean Republican. However, as the primary election showed, there is a clear dividing line in this +5 GOP district, and it is the James River. Southside candidates in the GOP primary all but crushed the Richmond-leaning candidates to the north. What’s more, the GOP nominated the very conservative Garrett in a district with 25% African-American representation, for whom Dodson will be sure to remind them of Garrett’s Tea Party credentials in the most unflattering light possible. To compound the demographic problems in the 22nd, Dodson is expected to raise well north of $400K picking up this seat, while Garrett has just emerged from a bloody five way primary where 74% voted for someone else. Southside vs. north of the James, lack of financial resources, and healing the primary wounds will be critical if Garrett is to win the general election here. The upside for Garrett is that Dodson has a record on the Lynchburg city council – not exactly a popular bunch – but that is also a challenge as 21% of the voting district is in Lynchburg.

30th District: Tim McGhee faces Democrat Del. Adam Ebbin. Ebbin, fresh off his primary victory, should have no trouble holding this seat for the Democrats.

31st District: Republican Caren Merrick will take on Democrat Barbara Favola. Merrick is as a self-made, highly successful, female entrepreneur and working mom; Favola’s claim to fame is serving on Arlington’s County Board and just came off a brutal primary where her opponent would not even say he would support her in the general election. Democrat Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple represented this district since 1996 before resigning this year, and the district itself was drawn to be more Republican. This is a battleground race that Republicans should be able to win.

40th District: Del. Bill Carrico vs. Democrat John Lamie. Don’t know much about Lamie and Carrico has hit the ground running in our most western district. This seat formerly was represented by the retiring Republican Sen. William Wampler. Lamie, from Abingdon, entered the race just recently in August. GOP win.

In this group, the GOP is really only guaranteed one win. This brings the number of seats we can comfortably predict to 16.

Challenger seats:
1st District: Freshman incumbent John “I want to put big brother in your passenger seat to monitor your mileage for tax purposes” Miller faces Williamsburg businessman Mickey Chohany. The district was drawn to protect Miller and he has a nearly $200k cash advantage, this in spite of a $50k donation to Chohany from Opportunity Virginia PAC – the governor’s campaign committee. The Chohany campaign has been quiet, but perhaps it’s because they’re finalizing their organization and fundraising strategy? The campaign where an incumbent is most vulnerable is their first re-election campaign.

6th District: Freshman incumbent Ralph Northam faces Hampton Roads businessman and former Navy captain, Ben Loyola. This is primarily an Eastern Shore and Norfolk district, which is an interesting mix of voters when you consider the rural and urban issues facing each. Yet, 58% of the district is in Norfolk, and that is where Northam is from. However, Loyola has been very active in the district and knocking on doors, where he is receiving a positive reaction to his message.

17th District: Longtime incumbent Edd Houck has fended off a series of strong Republican challengers in his career. Vakos, Moulton, Moulton again, Sheridan, Stuber, Yakabouski, and now former Army ranger and insurance executive Bryce Reeves. The district leans Republican, and has for decades. So why have Republicans not been able to piece together victory here in the 17th? Houck’s combination of pork to the good ol’ boy network, his intimate relations with the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star (the only major media outlet in the district), and his relatively strong support for the 2nd Amendment have foiled Republicans time and again. Houck’s uncanny use of trackers — before they were even fashionable — has unnerved many a GOP challenger, and is usually combined with a rather nasty “October surprise” that the FLS quickly capitalizes upon for their endorsement. Reeves will have to do a far better job of fundraising and field work, especially in Louisa where all eyes are on Garrett to the south. This district is firmly Democratic until Bryce Reeves demonstrates a solid game plan and fundraising potential – they’re off to a good start having just received $50k in seed money from the governor.

20th District: Sen. Roscoe Reynolds v. Sen. Bill Stanley and “inpendent” and un-“endorced” Jeff Evans

In an ideal world, Bill Stanley, who won the Republican nomination, would be going head-to-head in a tough, but potentially winnable, district against Roscoe “I like the gas tax despite its job-killing effects” Reynolds. Unfortunately, there are times when the southside of our state is not an ideal world. Jeff Evans, who has absolutely no chance of winning, but every chance of wrecking Stanley’s bid, will peel votes away from Stanley and could enable a Reynolds victory. The governor’s PAC sees this as a winnable race and donated $58k to Stanley. Stanley is the challenger here because 40% of the new district was the one he represented and 60% of the new district is what Reynolds represented.

21st District: Del. Dave Nutter v. Sen. John Edwards

The 21st Senate District encompasses the City of Roanoke, and all or part of Giles, Montgomery and Roanoke Counties in southwestern Virginia, has long been “unwinnable” for the GOP.

From our endorsement for Nutter:

With a share of the vote equal to that of the city of Roanoke coming from the New River Valley (NRV)—an area which Dave Nutter represented in the House of Delegates for nearly a decade—Del. Nutter is the candidate best positioned to make this race competitive. NRV voters know Nutter, his work ethic, dedication to his constituents and his largely conservative voting record in the House and have reelected him by large margins term after term. Nutter already has a strong base of support in the NRV and, through his position in the economic development office at Virginia Tech, is known to business leaders throughout the Roanoke area. When facing an entrenched incumbent, having these established organizational and fundraising networks is a significant advantage.

Furthermore, Del. Nutter’s experience in economic development would be an asset both to the 21st District and the State Senate as a whole. While Virginia’s unemployment rate remains lower than the national average, parts of our Commonwealth suffer from chronically high unemployment; Nutter’s experience could greatly assist Gov. McDonnell and the state government in nurturing an environment conducive to job creation in these most economically depressed regions.

Admittedly, Del. Nutter’s record in the House of Delegates is imperfect: he voted for the Warner tax increase seven years ago, a move which, he laments, seemed the best option at the time given the available revenue data. But he has still cast more that 20,000 votes and has earned a 95% rating from the Family Foundation. Since his ill-advised vote, Del. Nutter has been an advocate for keeping Virginia’s tax burden low, even voting to sunset the state’s tax laws. While we regret his vote in 2004, we believe he has learned from his mistake and seriously doubt that he will become a tax-and-spend liberal if elected to the state Senate.

Del. Nutter possesses the name recognition, organizational advantages, campaign experience, legislative experience and economic development skills necessary not only to take the fight to the Democrats on their own turf, but also to appeal to a wide segment of the electorate. Given the current electoral environment, John Edwards is more vulnerable in 2011 than ever before and perhaps ever will be again (besides, after the drama of the past year in North Carolina, who wants to drive around with a John Edwards bumper sticker, even if it isn’t that John Edwards).

33rd District: Patricia Phillips is going to give it another go against Senator Mark Herring. The district, several miles outside the beltway and goes from Leesburg to Dulles airport, has been made slightly more Democratic by redistricting. Herring also has a sizable war-chest. But Phillips message could resonate much more strongly with voters after seeing how Democrats, and Herring, have been governing in Richmond.

38th District: Republican Adam Light is looking to retire Sen. Phil Puckett. Opportunity Virginia also sees this race as a potential pick-up and signaled as much with a $50k donation. Light represents hard work, determination, and the spirit of what America is. He has a great personal story from once being laid off, to now being a recognized expert in land surveying and environmental studies – including being called to testify before the General Assembly. With Senate Democrats continuing to work against the coal and mining industry in this area of the state, and Puckett going along for the ride, this district represents a significant opportunity for a GOP gain.

There are seven challenger races Republicans could reasonably win (+1 more if you count Jeff Frederick v. Sen. Toddy Puller) and three open seat races the GOP could win. They need to win four of those ten. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible.

Democrats have twenty districts to defend. Republicans have 16 challengers in those districts. Of those 16, the governor won in eleven of those 16 districts.

Game on.

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