RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia voters are deciding today whether to continue with a partisan divide in the state legislature or give the Republicans absolute power with a new Senate majority.
Polls opened at 6 a.m. across the state and close at 7 for what election officials estimate will be a very low turnout and more voter confusion than there has been in years because of district lines being redrawn during this spring’s 10-year reapportionment.
After expensive, intense and exhausting campaigns waged in the brand new House of Delegates and Senate districts, Republicans believe they can take the Senate majority from the Democrats.
Republicans already hold the governor’s office and a comfortable House majority.
A net gain of two seats creates a 20-20 split in the 40-seat Senate with Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling breaking tie votes. A GOP net gain of three seats gives Republicans an outright majority and the right to dominate Senate committees where many conservative bills have traditionally been killed.
Daniel Payne, a 22-year-old VCU student, said he was casting his votes for a “hodgepodge” of candidates. He said it’s important to have a balance of both parties in Richmond.
“Not because I think that would necessarily get anything accomplished, but I think it’s better to have that sort of tension,” he said. “Whether you lean liberal or conservative, it’s better to have checks on each party in the House and Senate.”
He also was mindful of abortion when casting his ballot. The Democrat-controlled Senate often blocks GOP-led efforts to make it more cumbersome to get an abortion. Democrats and abortion rights groups have warned that many of those bills, like requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion or requiring doctors to tell women that fetuses feel pain, could become a reality if Republicans gain the majority.
“I want to keep abortion legal in Virginia, so that influences who I’m going to vote for,” Payne said, adding that he also is concerned about fiscal matters and would like to see spending reined in.
Nine Republican senators are running unopposed compared to only three Democrats. Conversely, 17 Democratic senators have opponents compared with only four Republican senators.
A half-dozen or so races will likely decide the Senate’s partisan ownership. Among them is the marquee race between two incumbent senators, first-term Republican Bill Stanley and veteran Democrat Roscoe Reynolds in a rural Southside district where unemployment is high.
Other targeted Democrats are:
— Sen. Phillip Puckett, who famously renounced President Barack Obama, after Republican foe Adam Light highlighted the unpopular cap-and-trade clean energy legislation which is anathema in their coal-country district;
— Seven-term Democratic Sen. R. Edward Houck of Spotsylvania, chairman of the Senate Education and Health Committee, who faces Republican businessman and former narcotics detective Bryce Reeves;
— First-term Democratic Sen. John Miller of Newport News, who has been fighting off GOP challenger Mickey Chohany (pronounced SHOW-Hahn) and aggressive television ads in the campaign’s closing days from the state Republican Party.
— Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke, a Democrat who shares the same name as (but no relation to) the disgraced former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice-presidential running mate in a race against Republican Del. David Nutter of Christiansburg.
— And Democratic Sen. George Barker, the architect of the 2011 Senate redistricting map, in a close race with Miller Baker in southern Fairfax County, where there is some confusion over the similarity of the two men’s surnames.
With the House’s GOP majority in no jeopardy, the only marquee race is important only for its symbolism.
House Democratic Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong of Henry County was left without his old district by GOP-controlled redistricting, so he chose to take on Republican Del. Charles Poindexter in a region that’s home to some of Virginia’s highest unemployment rates.
George Calvert, a 60-year-old Richmond resident who works in the money-management industry, said he was disappointed that his legislative races were uncontested and called it an “embarrassment” that there weren’t more contested races.
Like many voters, Calvert was confused when he showed up to vote, as redistricting had changed his representative. He thought he lived in Republican Sen. John Watkins’ district, but realized when he got to the voting booth that he’s now in Democratic Sen. Donald McEachin’s district.
Calvert said he believes redistricting should be put in the hands of an independent commission, rather than lawmakers.
“It’s really disturbing. I don’t expect everybody to understand it, but if we had districts drawn to respect communities of interest and county boundaries it would make more sense,” he said. “It’s absurd we’ll have what we have for another 10 years.”
Associated Press Writers Steve Szkotak and Zinie Chen Sampson contributed to this report.