Concerned that Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell’s rising tide might float additional House GOP hopefuls to Election Day wins, Democrats at the last minute are pumping thousands of dollars into a host of district races in South Hampton Roads and beyond to protect vulnerable seats.
While Democrats brace for the potential loss of seats in the 100-member House of Delegates, Republicans sense that momentum on their side – including McDonnell’s comfortable margin over Democrat Creigh Deeds in recent polls – might lead to greater-than-expected gains.
“The wind is at our back right now and it hasn’t been that way for a while,” said Frank Donatelli, chairman of GOPAC, a political group that focuses on electing Republicans to state and local offices.
Few are surprised to see late, high-dollar contributions going to Joe Bouchard and Bobby Mathieson, freshman Democratic delegates from Virginia Beach whom the GOP is actively trying to topple.
Perhaps more revealing is the $65,000 cash gift from the party to incumbent Norfolk Del. Paula Miller, whose seat hasn’t been viewed in political circles as particularly vulnerable. Miller faces a challenge from Republican John Amiral.
The Democratic gift to Miller was reported Oct. 26, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, acknowledged that although the Miller-Amiral race was not initially “high on our radar,” the GOP now is eyeing it more closely.
The $65,000 donation “came as a big shock. … That just tells you something,” Griffith said.
Republicans also are spending money to support candidates they think are competitive and those who may need a boost before Election Day.
Two Hampton Roads candidates receiving late donations are Chris Stolle and Ron Villanueva, the men challenging Bouchard and Mathieson, respectively.
Villanueva received more than $31,000 in recent days from GOP political action committees, while Stolle, whose campaign received more than $336,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee this year, collected nearly $14,000 from the state GOP on Oct. 28, according to Virginia Public Access Project .
The late distribution of campaign funds is more an indication that Democrats are competitive than a sign of anxiety, said House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, D-Henry.
“I don’t know anything that we’ve done differently this election cycle that we would not have done otherwise,” Armstrong said. “We don’t want to be sitting on any substantial sums of money on Nov. 4 , which is why we’re spending it.”
Seat pickups by Republicans would increase the party’s power in the General Assembly and stem the recent trend of Democrats chipping away at its majority. The GOP would also gain considerable influence in the 2011 process of drawing state district lines for the next decade.
Republicans hold a 53-43 edge over Democrats in the House. Two slots are vacant because of departures, and two seats are held by independents who caucus with the GOP.
There certainly will be some turnover. Eleven district seats – six held by Democrats and five by Republicans – will have new representatives because the incumbents aren’t on the ballot.
Although late-race money is hardly unprecedented, tracking where it flows can be one way to gauge which contests leaders in both parties are focused on leading up to Election Day.
“One of two things typically happen at the end of campaigns: Either you expand the playing field, or you protect what you have,” Donatelli explained. “This year, the field of opportunity is greater than we thought, and the other side is playing defense.”
A larger problem for Democrats, according to Ben Tribbett, a Democratic blogger and activist, is a combination of energized Republican voters and complacent Democratic ones.
“It’s a complete debacle,” said Tribbett, author of the Not Larry Sabato blog, who predicts Republicans could add as many as 14 seats Tuesday.
“It’s not that there are more seats that are definitely gone. It’s just that the playing field is that much bigger,” he said, noting that soaring McDonnell margins in some districts could sweep a slew of Republicans into office. “It’s just so volatile that no one knows.”
Griffith isn’t quite that optimistic, but he and other party officials think seats will be gained. “It’s turning out to be a good year for Republicans, and we fielded candidates who are good,” he said.
Julian Walker, (804) 697-1564, firstname.lastname@example.org