Control of Virginia Senate uncertain after split vote

PORTSMOUTH, Va Fri Nov 11, 2011 4:43pm EST

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PORTSMOUTH, Va (Reuters) - Virginians face months of uncertainty over how their state Senate will operate when it reopens for business next year after a Democratic incumbent's concession sealed a 20-20 split between the two parties.

Edd Houck publicly conceded to Republican Bryce Reeves on Facebook late Thursday afternoon, two days after the election in the state assembly's 17th District.

Houck had been trailing by less than 100 votes, but as the margin began to widen, the senator said he decided against seeking a recount after consulting his legal team and campaign advisers.

Old Dominion University assistant political science professor Jesse Richman said Republicans are now trying to make the case that they have effective control of the chamber with the deciding vote of Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, one of their own.

But under these circumstances, there is no precedent for Republicans taking control of the Senate. Doing so would give them all three tiers of the state's government, with a Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, and an increased majority in the House of Delegates after Tuesday's election.

A power-sharing deal was hatched in 1995, the only other time the Senate has split.

"Will Republicans succeed in pushing this through? It's not at all clear. But it seems very likely to me that they will try," Richman said.

"My best guess is Republicans will try to capture all (committee) chairmanships. They may succeed. But it's by no means guaranteed. They may have to concede more power to the Democrats."

College of William & Mary professor of government John McGlennon said the 1995 deal "didn't turn out all that well" for Republicans.

"The governor and the Senate actually engaged in some very significant policy disagreements," McGlennon said, adding the period saw "very bitter exchanges" between members of the Senate's Republican caucus and Governor Jim Gilmore "over taxing and spending policies in particular."

"I think there's always the potential for the institutional rivalry among the branches of government to substitute for partisan rivalry."

McGlennon said an even split in the Virginia state Senate means Democrats will chair some committees. "This notion that one party rule has returned to Virginia is a bit overblown," he said.

Governor McDonnell, he said, could recruit Democrats by offering full-time positions with generous state pensions -- a move he says Republicans cornered after the last split -- but that McDonnell could sabotage any vice-presidential candidacy ambitions by using Republican control of the General Assembly to ram through a hard-right agenda.

According to Richman, what form the Senate ultimately takes will not be known before it meets again early January.

"We have a period of roughly two months when there's going to be at least some degree of uncertainty about how the Senate will be organized," Richman said.

Whatever the outcome, McGlennon, meanwhile, discounts the mostly-Republican view that the election result spells trouble for President Barrack Obama next year.

"Many voters who didn't participate (on Tuesday) will be there at the polls during the presidential elections," he said.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and David Bailey)

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