McLEAN, Va. — After months of squeaker elections and recounts, the race for control of Virginia’s state Senate is coming down to a three-way special election in a northern Virginia swing district.
Democrat Jennifer Wexton, Republican John Whitbeck and independent Joe May — a longtime GOP state legislator who has found himself at odds with his party after a primary defeat last year — are vying for the seat. It had been held by Democrat Mark Herring, who was elected Attorney General after a nail-biter election that was not decided until the conclusion of a recount in mid-December.
Going into the November elections, the Senate was evenly divided between 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. But Republicans controlled the chamber thanks to the tie-breaking vote of the Republican lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling.
So when Democrat Ralph Northam won the lieutenant governor’s race in November as part of a Democratic sweep of statewide offices, it gave Democrats the chance to flip the Senate in their favor.
First, though, Democrats have to win two special elections — one in Hampton Roads to fill the seat being vacated by Northam, and one to fill the seat in Loudoun and Fairfax counties that had been held by Herring.
The election for Northam’s seat was held Jan. 7, and the State Board of Elections certified Democrat Lynwood Lewis as the winner by nine votes. The Republican there has demanded a recount.
So now, the focus of Virginia’s political world is focused on the 50 or so precincts in the Herndon, Sterling and Leesburg areas that make up the 33rd Senate District.
The Loudoun portion of the district has been particularly finicky, electing Republicans and Democrats over the years in patterns that defy easy analysis.
Wexton, a former prosecutor who lost a close race in 2011 for Commonwealth’s Attorney, said voters recognize that the stakes in this race are elevated.
She said she is connecting with voters put off by GOP-led efforts in Richmond over the past few years to focus on social issues, like requiring ultrasounds before abortions.
“This is kind of a bedroom community around here,” she said. “People don’t want elected officials peeking in their bedroom or micromanaging women’s health.”
Wexton holds a big fundraising advantage, thank to about $350,000 in donations from the Democratic Party, according to campaign finance reports reviewed by the Virginia Public Access Project. The money has given Wexton a big advantage in running numerous TV ads in the expensive D.C. media market, highlighting her work as a prosecutor and criticizing “Tea Party Republicans” for anti-abortion views.
The Republican, John Whitbeck, said he is focused on bread-and-butter issues like transportation, and said it’s Democrats who want to keep talking about social issues.
He said that while he opposes allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest, as a practical matter those views are irrelevant because that aspect of abortion law is settled. He said he’s focused on issues like fighting the high tolls that residents in the district pay to use the Dulles Greenway and Dulles Toll Road to commute into Washington.
And he rejected the notion that he is a cookie-cutter, right-wing Republican, citing his long history as a lawyer dealing with issues revolving around mental health.
While he has been active in local Republican politics, he may be best known for telling a bad joke at a campaign stop for GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli that featured a punch line in which “the head of the Jewish religion” presented the pope a bill for the Last Supper.
Whitbeck said the joke is a non-issue with voters and that he has apologized repeatedly.
The independent candidate, Joe May, bristles at any notion that he may play spoiler in the race. If anything, he says, it is Whitbeck who could potentially spoil his chances.
May had planned to seek the GOP nomination, but backed out when the party opted for a nominating convention over a firehouse primary, which May believed would be more inclusive. He says he is a moderate Republican and said Whitbeck represents the far-right wing of the party.
May had spent two decades as a Republican in the House of Delegates, rising to the chair the Transportation Committee. He lost re-election last year, losing a primary challenge to a conservative who targeted him for supporting a bipartisan transportation funding bill that raised taxes.
May said he has a record of accomplishment, and misses being part of the action in Richmond. He said as a moderate Republican, he may well be a better fit in the Senate, which has a long tradition of centrism, and believes his background as owner of a tech company suits him to the district, which is home to numerous tech companies that surround Dulles Airport.
“I’ve talked to enough of the senators to believe they will welcome me back,” May said. “It’s not an old boys’ club. … The guys are professional, and I enjoy working with them.”
May said that if he wins, he will caucus with Republicans, giving control of the chamber to the GOP.
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