|Voters in the Virginia Senate 33rd District—72 percent of which reside in Loudoun County and the other 28 percent coming from Fairfax—cast ballots overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the 2012 general election. Image courtesy/Virginia Public Access Project|
Republican candidate John Whitbeck called the Virginia Senate 33rd District special election one of the most pivotal races in Virginia in years.
Considering the stakes, few can argue that claim.
The Jan. 21 contest to fill Attorney General Mark Herring's seat has monumental implications for the commonwealth and its new slate of Democratic leaders – Herring, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. If Whitbeck or independent Joe May – likely to caucus with Republicans – wins the seat, the Democrats will be forced to reckon with a Republican-controlled House and Senate.
Prior to Herring and Northam's elections, the Virginia Senate was split with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
All three local candidates – May, Whitbeck and Democrat Jennifer Wexton – are well-known in Loudoun, although, as Mr. Whitbeck was quick to point out, he is the only aspirant who resided in the district as recently as four months ago. (First reported by the Times-Mirror, both Mr. May and Ms. Wexton took up residences in the 33rd District boundaries in the second half of 2013.)
Any registered Virginia voter who resides in the 33rd District, which falls predominately in Loudoun County with portions of western Fairfax County included, can participate in the special election.
It's been a tumultuous 12 months for Mr. May, a former Republican state delegate now running for the Virginia Senate as an independent. After serving in the House of Delegates for 20 years, he was defeated overwhelmingly in last summer's Republican primary by now-state Del. Dave LaRock (R-33rd).
Much of Mr. May's defeat seemed to be because of his vote in favor of the bipartisan transportation funding reform bill in 2013, a measure that brought about new transportation dollars for the commonwealth's crumbling roads for the first time in a generation.
In a Jan. 10 interview, Mr. May told the Times-Mirror he knows he still has plenty to offer Virginians in terms of legislative experience, transportation solutions and innovative problem-solving.
While he initially announced his Senate candidacy as a Republican, the pro-life, traditional-family-supporting Mr. May changed course and waged an independent bid because of the local GOP's decision to nominate via a mass meeting rather than an open primary.
Still, Mr. May said he's a true conservative and he's banking on the support of many in the GOP.
“I'm depending on a whopping number of Republicans to support me in this, and, boy, I've received no indication from them that they're not going to do so,” he said.
Mr. May picked up two key swing endorsements in the special election's closing weeks, with the Northern Virginia Technology Council's TechPAC and the National Federation of Independent Businesses supporting his bid.
Ms. Wexton has made her support of a woman's right to make her own health care decisions, equality for the LGBT community and education the focal points of her campaign, in addition to her support of expanding Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians through President Obama's health care law.
“The Medicaid expansion will lift all boats,” Ms. Wexton said. “It will create a lot more jobs, it will create more economic opportunity, it will reduce premiums for those that are already insured, it will reduce health care costs.”
The Democrat's campaign has been largely focused on tying Mr. Whitbeck to hard-line conservatives like former gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, who lost his 2013 bid after facing relentless attacks on his record as a social conservative.
Many of Ms. Wexton's mail pieces show pictures of Whitbeck and Cuccinelli side-by-side.
Ms. Wexton is making her second bid for public office, following a failed campaign for commonwealth's attorney in 2011.
Mr. Whitbeck said he'll be willing, if elected, to find compromise and work with Democratic lawmakers – so long as it's not raising taxes or further implementing the Affordable Care Act by expanding Medicaid.
“I'm the only candidate who will not raise your taxes … The number one thing I'm hearing besides Obamacare and tolls is, 'enough is enough,'” Mr. Whitbeck said.
Both Mr. May and Ms. Wexton, however, said they don't see a need for heightened state taxes in the near-term.
Mr. Whitbeck is ardently opposed to the Medicaid expansion, saying he doesn't believe the federal government will follow through with its promise to fund the vast majority of the program.
Education, specifically reforming standards of learning tests, and increased mental health care were areas in which Mr. Whitbeck said there's common ground to be found between Republicans and Democrats.
Mr. Whitbeck first entered the consciousness of many in the region in fall 2013 when he made a joke at a rally for gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, a joke considered anti-Semitic to many.
The controversial Wexton ad
The Whitbeck campaign and Virginia Republicans lambasted Ms. Wexton for her first television ad in which she talks about prosecuting violent criminals and fighting against “tea party Republicans.”
In Ms. Wexton's ad, the Democrat describes her experience in the court room, saying she fought for female victims of rape and assault.
“In the Virginia Senate, I'll fight just as hard against tea party Republicans who would take away a woman's health care and her right to choose, even in cases of rape and incest,” she states.
Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, almost immediately after the ad aired said it “quite simply proves that she is unfit to be in the Senate of Virginia.”
“Words simply fail when I try to describe how offensive this is,” Mr. Mullins said.
Mr. Whitbeck said the ad is indicative of the “shrill, partisan, angry politics out there.”
“To compare your political opponents to the violent criminals you prosecute is just inappropriate,” Mr. Whitbeck said.
Ms. Wexton, meanwhile, responded by saying she stands by the ad. The claim that she is comparing tea party Republicans to rapists is “absurd” and “a distraction,” the Democrat said.