Key Election Could Land Virginia in the History Books

GOP sweep of legislature would be first in South since Reconstruction

VIRGINIA has never shied from the political spotlight.

The birthplace of many Founding Fathers and now headquarters of Christian activists, the Old Dominion is beckoning once again at the history books: Next month, it could become the first Southern state since Reconstruction to elect a Republican majority to both houses of its legislature.

The shift would represent the latest step in a political realignment toward the GOP that has transformed the South. It would also be seen as a continuation of the 1994 Republican electoral sweep that rocked the US Congress and brought new Republican majorities to 19 state legislative chambers around the country.

In this off-off election year, Virginia is one of only five states that will elect its legislature Nov. 7 - and the one with the most, politically, at stake. The Democrats currently hold slim majorities in both houses, majorities that were large 25 years ago and have steadily shrunk with each election.

Mindful of the vote's symbolic significance, both national parties are funneling money into the Virginia elections, though neither will reveal exact figures for the state.

"We have put a significant priority on state legislative races," says GOP chairman Haley Barbour. "In the last year we've put more than $2 million toward legislative races where we thought we had a chance of winning new majorities."

Gov. George Allen, a conservative Republican, is keenly interested in waving goodbye to the state Democratic leaders he has battled and gaining GOP allies to aid his Newt Gingrich-style revolution. Since Governor Allen is legally prohibited from running for reelection, he has only the next two years to get his agenda through the legislature.

In some ways, the Virginia campaign mirrors the national debate. Key issues are welfare, taxes, education, and guns. Political pundits - many of them in and around neighboring Washington - will comb the Virginia results for clues to the '96 elections and insights into how the GOP revolution is faring.

But Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, cautions against overreaching. "It's silly to call Virginia a bellwether," he says.

"If the Democrats hold on," he says, "it's because, historically, 95 percent of incumbents are reelected.... But a Republican takeover [in Virginia] is inevitable, whether it's in 1995 or '97 or '99."

Professor Sabato adds that Virginia politics shouldn't be viewed in a completely Southern context. In fact, he says, "Virginia isn't very Southern any more." Virginia's evolution toward the GOP stems more from the fact that the state has become more suburban over the years, "more two-party competitive," Sabato says.

Robert Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, says the Virginia-as-national-litmus-test also fails in voter satisfaction.

A recent poll by his university and the Virginian Pilot newspaper shows that only 31 percent of Virginians think their state government is wasteful and inefficient, while 59 percent feel that way about the federal government. Overall, 83 percent of residents say Virginia is a good place to live.

In other words, Virginians aren't spoiling for a revolution. So, analysts say, whichever party controls each house, it will likely be by a slim majority. GOP chairman Barbour predicts Republicans will take one house but not both. Conservative activist Walt Barbee agrees, predicting the GOP will win the senate.

The Democrats aren't taking this lying down. White House aide George Stephanopoulos ventured into suburban Virginia Wednesday night to a fund-raiser for former state Sen. Johnny Joannou (D), a fellow Greek-American who's running to get his old seat back. In Charlottesville, Emily Couric, sister of NBC anchor Katie Couric, adds some star power to her effort to unseat the incumbent Republican state senator.

In nearby Mount Vernon, Va., two high-profile women are duking it out for a seat in the House of Delegates. Sandy Liddy Bourne (R), daughter of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, hopes to oust incumbent Del. Linda "Toddy" Puller (R), the widow of Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam vet Lewis Puller.

That race is seen as a test of religious conservatives, who support Mrs. Bourne. So far, the battle is being waged in court: Conservatives have filed suit to defend their right to distribute election materials without interference from state election laws and the Democratic Party, as has happened in the past.

Democrats argue that some conservative "voter guides" are actually partisan campaign literature thinly veiled as "educational." But even if the conservatives win in court, Democrats aren't worried. "Virginia voters are pretty astute at recognizing the far-right agenda," says Jack Young, general counsel to the state Democratic Party.

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