When Virginia voters cast a ballot for the House of Delegates elections this fall, approximately one-third of Northern Virginia's population will have no choice in who wins.
Eight incumbents from Fairfax County, Loudoun County, Arlington and Alexandria — representing more than 661,000 citizens — are running for re-election without opposition for the Nov. 8 general election.
"I think contested elections are inherently good," said Del. Vincent Callahan (R-34), who has not faced a challenge since 2001. "It shows that our electoral system could probably use some reform."
The majority of election districts in Virginia are considered "safe seats," meaning the population tends to vote either predominantly Republican or Democrat. In 2001, Republicans re-drew the districts with unprecedented precision, cementing the GOP majority in the state legislature for years to come.
Two years ago — the last time all 100 House of Delegates seats were up for election — fewer than half of Northern Virginia's races featured more than one candidate. Around the state, two-thirds of all General Assembly races were not contested.
Though slightly more Northern Virginia races will be competitive this fall, political observers suspect there will be little deviation from the existing General Assembly makeup, consisting of 61 Republicans, 37 Democrats and two Independents.
"There may be a couple minor changes, but I don't see any major shift occurring in November," said Toni-Michelle Travis, a political science professor at George Mason University.
FIVE HOUSE RACES in Northern Virginia are being targeted by both parties because the likely outcome could go either way.
These swing seats include: the 35th District, where Del. Steve Shannon (D) will face Republican challenger Jim Hyland; the 37th District, left open by Del. Chap Petersen's failed bid for lieutenant governor; the 41st District, left open by retiring Del. Jim Dillard (R); the 42nd District, where incumbent Del. Dave Albo (R) faces a well-funded challenge by Democrat Greg Werkheiser; and the 67th District, where Republican Chris Craddock unseated incumbent Del. Gary Reese (R) in last week's primary and faces Democrat Chuck Caputo.
Fairfax County Democratic Chair Ginny Peters said Democrats are well-poised to pick up several seats and possibly unseat Albo, a six-term incumbent.
"We've got our work cut out for us, but I think the face of the General Assembly could definitely change a bit this year," Peters said.
Eric Lundberg, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said it is too early to call these tightly-contested races, but he is confident the GOP will at least hold its ground in November.
"We hope to make some incremental progress toward having more of our representatives in Richmond," Lundberg said. "We're still light years away from Nov. 8."
APART FROM the swing seats, few of the nine remaining contested House races in Northern Virginia are considered likely to change hands this November, according to local party leaders.
"I think we'll see pretty much the same General Assembly down in Richmond next year," said Callahan, chairman of the Northern Virginia Caucus.
In Democratic-leaning Reston, for example, Del. Ken Plum (D-36) is facing a challenge from Donny Ferguson, a Libertarian and an aide to conservative Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R).
Plum, who has served in the House since 1982, has collected $99,000 in campaign contributions so far this election cycle, while Ferguson has brought in just under $5,000, according to campaign finance reports.
Meanwhile, in the 45th District — which covers portions of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County — Democratic primary voters selected David Englin last week as their party's nominee. Englin will face Republican Chris J. T. Gregerson, though the district is solidly Democratic.
Some House races may become more hotly contested as the months go by, Lundberg said.
Republicans say Jim Hyland, nominated in last week's 35th District primary, has a decent chance of unseating Del. Steve Shannon (D) in the November race. GOP activists also think Ron Grignol, a fathers' rights advocate from Alexandria, might be able to defeat incumbent Del. Mark Sickles (D) in the 43rd District.
In Loudoun County, Democrats think their candidate, Dave Poisson, president of a Dulles marketing firm, might successfully unseat Del. Dick Black (R-32).
"It's always difficult to defeat an incumbent," Lundberg said. "But we'll just have to wait and see."