After surviving a disciplined and well-funded fight from Republican Dave Hunt, state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) prepares to head back to Richmond.
In a race noted as much for its $900,000 price tag as it was for its unusually acerbic tone, Howell emerged victorious after returns came in Tuesday night.
"I am very happy. This was the most vigorous campaign I have ever had to run," said Howell, after Hunt called to concede. "Mr. Hunt was very gracious in his concession and I look forward to representing the entire 32nd district ... He ran one heck of an energetic campaign."
Not as close as some observers had predicted it might be, Howell was leading Hunt 18,608 votes, or 55 percent, to 14,386 votes, or 43 percent, with 189 of 225 precincts reporting. Hunt said he was a little surprised at the outcome given recent internal polls that he said found the candidates running neck and neck. "It looks like she really got her people, especially in Reston, out to vote," he said. "That's a credit to her and her organization. She ran a good race."
Trading barbs and negative attacks throughout the summer and into the fall, the Howell-Hunt race often resembled a heavy-weight boxing match more than a race for the 32nd State Senate seat in the Virginia General Assembly. Combined, the two candidates spent more than $300,000 on direct mail advertising alone that flooded voters mailboxes in the weeks and days leading up to the election.
In the end, first time political candidate Dave Hunt, could not overcome incumbent Howell's 12-year head start. Despite pouring more than $300,000 of his own money into the race, including $100,000 in the last week, and spending more than $163,000 on direct mail advertisements, Hunt succumbed to Howell's popularity in a district she has served for three terms.
Hunt said he didn't regret anything about the experience, including investing so much of his own money into the uphill race. "I gave it my best shot and I hope to stay involved politically," said Hunt, shortly after conceding the race to Howell. "If I hadn't worked as hard as I could have, I would have regretted that."
Prior to the election, Scott Leake, the director of the Joint Republican Caucus, acknowledged Howell's strengths as a candidate. "She's certainly not weak," Leake said. "There are a lot of Democratic senators that if we put them in that seat, they would have more trouble than she will have. She's politically savvy."
A LOSS BY HOWELL would have been devastating to the state's Democratic party, election observers said before the election. Gov. Mark Warner's (D) political action committee contributed more than $30,000 to the Howell coffers in hopes of keeping the 32nd seat Democratic. Endorsed by a cross-section of groups like the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, EMILY's List and the Sierra Club, Howell stressed her experience and leadership throughout the grueling campaign while taking in thousands of dollars in contributions from developers, contractors, and other incumbent-friendly PACs. "I was definitely expecting this to be a very expensive race, it was. I expected him to be energetic, and he was," Howell said, on the eve of the election. "I was disappointed that he went so negative."
Before Election Day, Jan Reeves, Howell's campaign manager and the chair of the Fairfax County Democratic Party, was hopeful that the county's "well educated and involved electorate" would look beyond the negative attacks.
Del. Ken Plum (D-36), a close ally of Howell, said he thought Hunt's negative attacks hurt Hunt more than Howell. Hunt was aggressive, Plum said, but the Reston Democrat said he never got the sense that Hunt's campaign "really caught on with people."
"You can't put all the problems of the region on the back of one senator," Plum said. "It overlooks the fact that we have to work together as a delegation. When you come in as the hot shot with all the answers, it raises a question if you have the right temperament to work together."
WITH A DAY to go before Tuesday's Election, Eddie Page, the chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Party, was predicting "huge wins." "It's going to be a lot longer night for the Democrats than it is going to be for us," Page predicted.
While not predicting victory for Hunt, Page felt that the Great Falls Republican did have a chance against the strong incumbent, Howell. But Page was realistic. "Any time you have an incumbent, it is tough. But Dave Hunt was the right guy — he was out there for several years and he pointed out the important issues to the people that I feel are in that district. That will absolutely make the difference."
Scott Leake agreed with Page. Leake, the director of the party's political arm in Richmond, admitted that a Howell win would have been a tremendous "upset" with broader implications outside the 32nd district. "A loss would [have been] huge," Leake said. "They know they are going to lose what used to Leslie Byrne's seat to Devolites. When you only have 17 and you are going down to 16, if you go below 16, you start to become irrelevant."
INTERVIEWED ON MONDAY, less than 24 hours before the polls opened, Leake said he felt good about the $900,000 senate race. "It's good stuff, tempered with this reality: incumbents rarely lose," Leake said. "Dave Hunt has run a textbook campaign, in terms of his own personal energy and his organization and his own resources."
For an incumbent, like Howell, to lose, Leake said there would have had to have been a combination of factors working in the challenger's favor. "One, the incumbent has to do something wrong. If he or she doesn't make that mistake, the incumbent rarely loses," he said. "And two, the challenger has to run a nearly perfect campaign. Dave has done his part. I think she's given just enough of an opportunity to put some distance between her and the moderate to conservative people in her district. That is a slim opening that Dave has to go through."
As the results trickled in, the slim opening slammed shut.
Watching from the sidelines, Plum, who ran unopposed this election cycle, said he was amazed at how much money Hunt spent in his upset bid. "Janet Howell's opponent has spent a pot-load of money," Howell said. "It is just incredible that you would borrow a quarter million dollars to get an $18,000 a year job. I wonder if that just doesn't disqualify you for the position to have that kind of judgment."