Democrats Upset In Dem Stronghold

By John Celock

A Republican running as an independent upset a Democrat to grab a county board seat in the Virginia Democratic stronghold of Arlington County Tuesday evening.

Attorney John Vihstadt easily defeated Democratic businessman Alan Howze by 3,500 votes in the low turnout special election to complete the term of Democrat Christopher Zimmerman who resigned earlier this year. Zimmerman’s term expires at the end of 2014 and Vihstadt is expected to face off with Howze in November for a full four-year term.

Vihstadt is the first non-Democrat to capture a county board seat in Arlington since 1999. Vihstadt did not hold a party line in the special election but was endorsed by the county Republican Party and the county Green Party. In addition, several high profile Arlington Democrats including county board member Libby Garvey, Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and former county Democratic Party Chairman Peter Rousselot endorsed Vihstadt.

Howze attempted to blunt Vihstadt’s coalition by nationalizing the race. His mail pieces centered on promoting his own progressive credentials including stressing that he would push for marriage equality and abortion access in office.

He also pressed Vihstadt to take a position on expanding Medicaid in Virginia, an issue currently pending in the state Legislature. Howze supports the expansion, which is backed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

Howze also sought to play up Vihstadt’s GOP background including donations to Republican candidates around the country. He used this in an attempt to describe Vihstadt as too conservative for Arlington.

Vihstadt focused his campaign on county issues, including the proposed street car in the Columbia Pike neighborhood and a proposed aquatics center in Crystal City. He focused on the rising costs of both projects.

Vihstadt might not have an easy time in his second race against Howze in November. Voter turnout is expected to be higher with the U.S. Senate race dominating the ballot. With Sen. Mark Warner (D) facing a strong challenge from former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, Democrats are expected to push for high voter turnout in Arlington and other Northern Virginia counties to blunt Gillespie’s GOP advantage in rural Virginia.

Howze was an aide to Warner when the later was Virginia governor. Warner actively supported his former aide in the special election.