WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Virginia's state Senate elections next week are shaping up as an early signal for President Barack Obama ahead of national elections next year.
Republicans have a strong shot at taking control of the state Senate from Democrats on Tuesday, political analysts said. A win would put state government solidly in Republican hands in an important swing state, and mark a sharp turnaround from 2008, when Obama became the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964.
Political analysts said loss of the 40-seat state Senate to Republicans would be a bad sign for Obama as he seeks to win Virginia and its 13 electoral votes next year.
In 2009 Republicans won the governorship, previously held by a Democrat, and increased their majority in the House of Delegates. A Senate majority would complete Republican control of the state.
"I think the odds are strongly in favor of the Republicans taking control of the Senate," said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.
"It is a very key, important state, and political observers around the country will be watching Virginia as an important bellwether."
Underscoring the state's significance, Obama toured Virginia last month, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has visited a northern Virginia campaign office, and former President Bill Clinton held a campaign fund-raiser for Democratic state Senate candidates.
The Democrats now control the Senate by a 22-18 margin. Although local issues such as gun control, traffic jams and education dominate the races, some Republican candidates have made Obama and his handling of the sluggish national economy an issue.
GIVE ME SPACE
With the president's most recent Gallup poll approval rating in Virginia stagnant at 46 percent, at least some Democrats are seeking to put space between themselves and the president.
Asked if voters were linking her to Obama's perceived shortfalls, Senator Yvonne Miller, a Democratic incumbent running unopposed in southeastern Virginia, near Norfolk, said: "I'm not representing anybody but the people in this electoral district."
She added: "Obama does not sit in Richmond, do you understand that, sir?"
Senator Phil Puckett, a Democrat seeking re-election in coal-producing southwestern Virginia, has distanced himself from Obama over environmental issues. He has said he will not support Obama's reelection.
Spending in the Senate races had reached almost $32 million by October 26, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), which tracks campaign financing.
Dave Rexrode, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said the party was "completely on the offensive" as Democrats moved away from Obama.
"Across the state, he is not a popular figure," Rexrode said. "I do think it (the election) will have national implications."
In one attack on the president, the local Republican party in Loudoun County, on the outskirts of the Washington metropolitan area, sent out a Halloween email depicting Obama as a zombie with a bullet hole in his forehead.
After an outcry over the email, the county's Republican chairman apologized and the party's local communications director resigned.
Brian Moran, chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party, said he was confident his party would keep control of the Senate since many candidates were incumbents and more moderate than Republicans.
He downplayed the impact of the Senate race on Virginia's electoral votes next year.
"There is a lot of time between now and next year to make conclusions on where Virginia is in terms of its politics," he said.
(Additional reporting by Matthew A. Ward in Portsmouth, Virginia; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)
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