Virginia Senate Special: a Democrat's Counterintuitive Win

I've been saying for months that Democrats are motivated and Republicans are complacent, so it comes as no surprise that Democrat Dave Marsden yesterday ...
by | January 13, 2010

I've been saying for months that Democrats are motivated and Republicans are complacent, so it comes as no surprise that Democrat Dave Marsden yesterday won a key Virginia State Senate special election in a Fairfax County swing district.

Wait a minute, that's not what I've been saying. In fact, I've been saying the exact opposite thing for months. So how do we explain Marsden's surprise 327-vote victory?

I can think of three explanations. One is that Democrats actually were motivated and Republicans really were complacent -- or at least that the enthusiasm gap had ceased to be a major issue. Republicans did just win smashing victories in Virginia, sweeping the statewide offices and expanding their majority in the Virginia House of Delegates. Democrats desperately needed this seat to solidify their control of the state Senate.

In sports, we often talk about the team that "needs a win" or that "wanted it more." While some of that talk is nonsense, undoubtedly there's some truth to the idea that people work harder when they're desperate.

In early 2009, before the national political environment turned against Democrats, Republicans already had some good showings in Northern Virginia special elections. If you believed then that Republicans were performing well because they were more desperate/motivated then, is there any reason to doubt that the same dynamic would help Democrats in the state now?

The second explanation is that Marsden simply was a better candidate than Republican Steve Hunt. Marsden was a current elected official (a state delegate) who had just fought through a bruising reelection bid. Hunt had lost his previous race for reelection to the Fairfax County School Board, amid controversy.

As much as some people (me) are talking about how it's a bad time for moderate politicians, it's worth remembering that large numbers of Americans are moderates. Marsden has worked for Republicans in the past, which may have helped him appeal to the center without offending the Democratic base too much.

The third explanation is that after I predicted Hunt would win, he lost because of the Goodman jinx. If so, my apologies.

What's easier than explaining this result is explaining the consequences of this result. Democrats now have a 22-18 edge in the Virginia Senate, which means they're unlikely to lose control of the body before the 2011 elections. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell will have to find bipartisan support to advance his agenda.

And, of course, the Democratic victory comes right before redistricting. With split control, compromise legislative and congressional maps seem more likely. Virginia's four vulnerable Democratic congressmen -- Glenn Nye, Tom Perriello, Rick Boucher and Gerry Connolly -- now have a better chance of sticking in Congress for a while, if they can make it through 2010.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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