Don’t expect to see droves stampeding toward local precincts to cast ballots for state and local seats when the polls open Tuesday.
It’s an off-year election in which the most hotly contested race is for the nonpartisan clerk of Alexandria’s circuit court.
Without the draw of high-profile national races, those candidates running for the Virginia Senate and local offices will have to rely more than ever on getting their base supporters out, whether they be republican, democrat or other.
Alexandria Clerk of the Circuit Court
It’s not every election cycle where the race for circuit court clerk takes top billing, but it’s the first time Edward Semonian has faced a serious challenge for a post he first won in 1979.
A Democrat, Semonian is vying with Republican Chris Marston for a position aptly described as nonpartisan. Despite being chosen by their respective caucuses, neither man will have a party designation next to his name on the ballot.
In an election race that came “out of nowhere,” according to Alexandria Democratic Committee Chairman Clark Mercer, the battle lines have been drawn over technology and access to court files. Marston says the office hasn’t gone far enough in embracing the 21st century.
“I’m presenting a choice to Alexandria for a courthouse that is citizen centered and allows citizens to do business with government in a manner that is most convenient for them,” Marston said.
Semonian is quick to point out he oversaw the office’s transition from paper to computers — with a limited budget.
“Despite the fact that the population of Alexandria — and my office’s workload — has increased by nearly 30 percent since 1984, my innovations have resulted in a net gain of only three employees from the 18 that we had then,” he said.
In lieu of the national race, the showdown for the future of the clerk’s office may well be the polls’ biggest draw.
Senate District 30
The bulk of Alexandria’s voters will have a say in who replaces former state Sen. Patsy Ticer in Richmond: a well-known local Democrat in Adam Ebbin or a GOP newcomer from Falls Church in Tim McGhee.
Ebbin, with deep ties to the community and a lengthy career in the House of Delegates, is the favorite after beating out City Councilman Rob Krupicka and Arlington School Board member Libby Garvey in the Democrat’s August primary.
But in an off year, there’s a chance for a McGhee upset — however slim. Ebbin has stayed busy talking with voters and capitalized on what some saw as a gay smear made by McGhee during an early October candidates forum in Alexandria.
While McGhee’s remark caught the attention of several local bloggers, it’s unclear how much it will hurt or help his campaign. Insiders don’t consider him a threat, and if nothing else, the miscue has earned him some name recognition.
Senate District 35
It’s hard to imagine a political newcomer unseating Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35), hailed as one of the state’s most powerful politicians and the Senate’s majority leader, but Robert Sarvis is aiming to do just that.
Sarvis, a Republican, hopes to tap into voter discontent — anger at every level of government from Alexandria City Council chambers to Richmond.
“There is a real worry that there’s a lack of effective representation and a lack of leadership — a vacuum of leadership on a lot of issues, particularly transportation issues,” Sarvis said. “There’s frustration at a lot of the bad decision-making going on, whether it’s BRAC or on the Beauregard Corridor.”
While Sarvis’ sentiments may ring true in the ears of many voters, it’s not clear whether they’ll be enough to oust Saslaw, who is a well-known dealmaker with a broad base of support. During the spring’s budget negotiations, Saslaw emerged as a strong voice of Democrat opposition in the Senate to the Republican-controlled House — a position he is touting to constituents.
“In 2011, the Senate Democrats restored $450 million in cuts to public education, fought for smaller classes and supported more funding for school construction,” he said. “Our colleges and universities must be affordable and accessible for Virginians.”
A third-party candidate, Katherine Ann Pettigrew, has also emerged as a challenger for Saslaw’s long-held seat, though the seriousness of her campaign is debatable. A Green Party candidate, Pettigrew has raised no money according to the Virginia Public Access Project. She did not respond to inquiries before press time.
Senate District 39
Due in part to the spring’s redistricting process, voters in six West End precincts will be casting ballots in one of the more hotly contested state Senate races in Northern Virginia.
Incumbent Democrat George Barker and GOP challenger Miller Baker have sparred over the once-in-a-decade process that shifted several city neighborhoods into a district that sprawls across Fairfax and Prince William counties.
And they’ve argued over their records, taxes and school issues. Baker, who did not respond to media inquiries, has earned the support of a state Tea Party organization. The Tea Party waded into the race after targeting Barker as a vulnerable incumbent in a year when Republicans have their sights on capturing the Senate, the lone Democratic stronghold left in Richmond.
While Baker has presented himself as business-friendly and in favor of local control when it comes to school calendars, Barker is quick to trot out his record of working across party lines.
The freshman senator saw 20 bills passed in the legislature this year, which is no small feat, and is running as a moderate. He’s also appealing to voters who might worry about a one-party state, a clear nod to the Tea Party’s campaign against him.
“I work very well with my Republican colleagues, but I think that part of the reason we’ve been as effective as we’ve been is because there’s not one party in control,” Barker said. “We end up having some balance and it forces us to work together.”
House District 45 and 46 (Uncontested)
Neither Del. David Englin (D-45) nor Del. Charniele Herring (D-46) face opposition on the ballot this year, and local Democratic strategists believe that in Herring’s case, the goal is to keep from galvanizing local voters.
Clark Mercer, Alexandria Democratic Committee chairman, warned local Democratic activists about the potential ruse during an August primary debate for the state Senate District 30 race. The idea is to give Democrat voters in the West End — home to the Barker-Baker battle — as little reason to get out to the polls as possible, he said at the time.
But when asked about the potential impact of voter turnout (or lack thereof) in the state Senate District 30 race not too long ago, Mercer pointed to the circuit court clerk as having the potential to draw voters out. The same might be said in the West End.