Virginia Is for Democrats

When NBC's Tim Russert asked Hillary Clinton about her position on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's program to provide illegal immigrants with some form of drivers' licenses, he helped bring the issue of immigration reform back into the national spotlight. Now observers are looking to today's state-level races in Virginia for clues as to how the issue could play out in election 2008.

While those in Washington tend to think of Northern Virginia as the increasingly Democratic suburbs of the capital, geographically, Northern Virginia is still home to many communities that are considerable more Southern, rural, and conservative in spirit than cosmopolitan hotspots like Arlington, Va. It is in these communities, such as Fairfax, Loudon, and Prince William Counties, that are in cultural transition between North and South that the battle over immigration has been fiercest.

The state level fight over how to handle the influx of illegal immigrants into Virginia has not always played out along traditional partisan lines, however. In some cases, Northern Virginia Democrats are using the immigration issue to accuse their Republican opponents of favoring amnesty for illegals or otherwise being soft on illegal immigration. In others, Republicans are more vocal than their Democratic counterparts on the need for urgent state-level action to address the issue.

Two races in particular are worth looking at for a sense of how the immigration issue could impact Democrats next fall. In the first, the Democrat is trying to take an open seat in a traditionally Republican District, while in the second, a Republican is trying to unseat a Democratic incumbent. [Editors' Note: Read Franke-Ruta's take on the results here.]

Karen Schultz (D) v. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R), State Senate District 27

Incumbent Republican H. Russell Potts Jr., is retiring from this traditionally GOP-leaning district -- which encompasses, Winchester, Frederick and Clarke counties, and portions of Fauquier and Loudoun counties -- that George Bush won in 2004. In such an environment, one might think that Republican Vogel -- a long-time G.O.P. lawyer who worked for the Bush-Cheney campaign during the Florida recount, and later rose to chief counsel for the Republican National Committee -- would be using the immigration issue to score points off Democrat Schultz, who boasts of being Teacher of the Year at Shenandoah University's School of Pharmacy, where she is a professor.

Think again. Schultz has mounted a vigorous challenge by taking a harder line on immigration than many other Virginia Democrats and accusing Vogel of being a tool of the amnesty lobby. Schultz supports a controversial proposal to grant local law enforcement authorities the power, through an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to detain, process, and deport illegal immigrants. In September, The Northern Virginia Daily reported that Vogel's husband Alex Vogel worked for a law firm that lobbied for the American Immigration Lawyers Association in 2005 and 2006. Schultz quickly called for Vogel to return her portion of the $63,000 in "amnesty-lobbying money" her husband's firm was paid, and, in the waning days of the race, bombarded the airwaves with ads accusing Vogel of profiting from the pro-amnesty lobby.

Illegal immigration "is not a Democratic issue, a Republican issue, an independent issue -- it's an issue for everybody," Schultz campaign manager Julie Petrick told the Prospect<. "I don't think the issue should be politicized by party."

Charles Colgan (D) v. Robert FitzSimmonds (R), State Senate District 29

The 81-year-old Colgan, a Democrat, has served in the State Senate since 1976 representing Manassas City, Manassas Park City and Prince William County. A year ago, his seat seemed secure. But then Prince William County became the center of Virginia's wars over illegal immigration. Over the summer the county's board of supervisors passed an ordinance barring illegals from using county services, leading to months of highly charged debate. (Tara McKelvey covered the controversy in the November issue of the Prospect). Robert FitzSimmonds, the owner of a medical transcription business, has mounted a surprisingly strong race against Colgan by playing on the passions unleashed by that debate. "The one race where immigration is going to play the most is Colgan-FitzSimmonds," explained Virginia G.O.P. communications director Shaun Kenney. "For northern Virginia as a whole, immigration is going to be an issue, it's playing the most in Prince William County."

FitzSimmonds, who since 2003 has served as a legislative aide to State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R), is a staunch social conservative and former board chairman of a crisis pregnancy center. But it's his promise to deny in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants and crack down on those who employ them that has made him competitive. "In 32 years, Chuck Colgan hasn't introduced one bill to solve our immigration problem," accuses one FitzSimmonds television spot.

Other races where the immigration has been one of the leading hot-button issues include: incumbent Republican Jeannemarie Devolites Davis vs. Democratic challenger J. Chapman Petersen in Senate district 34; incumbent Republican Ken Cuccinelli vs. Democratic challenger Janet Oleszek in Senate district 37; and incumbent Republican J.K. "Jay" O'Brien vs. Democratic challenger George L. Barker in Senate district 39.

Democratic challengers have the political winds at their backs and demographic changes on their sides, raising hopes among Virginia Democrats that they might be able to find the four additional seats needed to retake the State Senate.

How will immigration questions impact the otherwise favorable political environment for Democrats? Check in on Tapped tonight for election results and answers.