POLITICS

Dems' win puts party on cusp of Va. Senate control

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Photo - Signs for candidates are seen in the snow outside of Town Hall in Herndon, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. The special election will likely determine which party controls the state Senate. Election officials said they were pleasantly surprised that, despite the nasty weather, turnout could reach 20 percent in some precincts. (AP Photo/Matt Barakat)
Signs for candidates are seen in the snow outside of Town Hall in Herndon, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. The special election will likely determine which party controls the state Senate. Election officials said they were pleasantly surprised that, despite the nasty weather, turnout could reach 20 percent in some precincts. (AP Photo/Matt Barakat)
Politics,Local,DC,Virginia

HERNDON, Va. (AP) — Democrat Jennifer Wexton on Tuesday won a three-way special election to represent parts of Loudoun and Fairfax counties in the state Senate, leaving Democrats poised to reclaim control of the chamber they lost two years ago.

With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Wexton had 53 percent, or 11,097 votes, followed by 37 percent for Republican John Whitbeck and 10 percent for Joe May, a longtime GOP legislator who ran as an independent, according to unofficial returns from the State Board of Elections.

Whitbeck called Wexton and conceded the race shortly before 8:30 p.m.

With Wexton's victory, Democrats now need only to survive a recount in a Hampton Roads Senate district to flip the chamber from GOP to Democratic control. The Democrat in that race held a nine-vote lead going into the recount.

Wexton, a former Loudoun County prosecutor, is hoping to be sworn in and seated by the end of the week.

She said she was especially grateful that so many supporters braved a snowstorm to cast ballots on her behalf.

"We were a little concerned because of the weather," she said in a phone interview after the results were in. "Everybody always wants to say that Democrats don't turn out in bad weather, but obviously that wasn't the case."

Undeterred by the storm, tens of thousands of voters in parts of Loudoun and Fairfax counties trudged to the polls to cast ballots in the crucial election. The vacancy came up when Democrat Mark Herring, who previously held the seat, was elected attorney general.

Elections officials urged voters to get to the polls early before the snowstorm took hold, and said they were pleasantly surprised by the turnout, given the weather.

The 33rd Senate District, running through Herndon, Sterling and Leesburg, is a swing district that defies easy analysis. Wexton lost a close election for commonwealth's attorney in 2011. Whitbeck, a lawyer specializing in mental health issues, won the GOP nomination amid complaints from May that the party was turning its back on moderates like him.

In Loudoun County, which makes up more than 70 percent of the Senate district, registrar Judy Brown said people seemed to heed the suggestions to vote early. Turnout exceed the 15 percent that she had expected, despite the miserable weather.

She said the State Board of Elections had coordinated with the Virginia Department of Transportation to try to keep roads clear around polling places.

The biggest problem, she said, was complaints from dozens of voters outside the 33rd district who showed up to vote only to find out they were ineligible. Candidates had advertised heavily on television in advance of the election, and those ads reach voters throughout the region. Wexton, with help from the Democratic Party, had a particularly strong presence on the airwaves.

At Herndon Middle School, voter Earlene Coleman said there was little chance she would have forgotten about the special election, given the campaign's efforts to get out the vote.

"We've been receiving so many calls, and knocks on the door that I thought it only made sense to come out and do my duty," Coleman said.

Coleman, who said she tends to support Democrats, voted for Wexton. She was bolstered in part by a relative who knows Wexton personally and vouched for her.

Provided that Democrat Lynwood Lewis maintains his lead in the Hampton Roads recount, Wexton's victory will give the Senate an even 20-20-split between Democrats and Republicans. The tiebreaking vote for control of the chamber goes to the new lieutenant governor, Democrat Ralph Northam.

When the 2011 elections left the Senate with a similar 20-20 split, Democrats sought a power-sharing arrangement. But Republicans rejected the idea, and took control of the chamber with help from the then-Republican lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling.

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