Virginia Looks Ever More Blue « The Washington Independent
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/warner2.jpgMark Warner and Barack Obama on the campaign trail in Virginia. (flickr)
Friday afternoon, former Virginia state Sen. Russ Potts, who once ran for governor as an independent, opened his Winchester home for a landmark event. Ten prominent Republicans gathered to endorse the Senate campaign of former Gov. Mark Warner before a fund-raiser attended by 200 people — Republicans, Democrats, independents.
More than a fund-raiser, or even a grand photo-op, the event signaled just how powerful a grip Warner has in his Senate race to replace retiring Republican stalwart Sen. John Warner. Some polls have the widely popular Warner leading by as much as 30 points over his GOP rival, Jim Gilmore. The state long considered a Republican fortress seems poised to have two Democratic senators, in addition to a Democratic governor.
One would think that such circumstances would shine brightly for Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, who’s campaigned vigorously throughout the state. But the challenge for Obama is tough. Virginia hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The presence of military bases in the state have created a solid conservative voting bloc that most always votes for national Republican candidates.
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
But if you haven’t noticed, we’re in once-unimagined political territory this campaign season. The more one travels the country, the more one realizes that the old party affiliations have begun to crumble. More and more people are declaring themselves independents — voting from their guts and their pocketbooks. This all makes Virginia a state very much in play.
With a little less than a month from the election, Obama leads Sen. John McCain by four points in the most recent CNN/Time/Opinion Research Poll. This is the Virginia that McCain, in late May, enjoyed a 9 percentage point lead in a poll taken by Virginia Commonwealth University, according to a recent CNN.com story.
“What you’re seeing now is the opposite of what usually happens,” said Cordel Faulk, director of communications at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Warner, the Senate candidate, is actually helping Obama.”
But the question remains, how much?
Looking at comparable races across the country, nowhere is there the kind of disparity of poll numbers for a Democrat in a open statewide race versus the top of the national ticket. In Colorado, Democrat Mark Udall leads by four percentage points over his opponent, a number that closely mirrors Obama’s state numbers. In New Mexico, Tom Udall has opened up a 14-point lead over his opponent, while Obama averages a seven-point advantage over McCain.
Neither case shows anywhere near the gap between the lead Warner enjoys and the dogfight Obama’s in. So, like, what gives?
To answer, one need not look any further than Potts, a disaffected Republican known for saying what he wants when and where he wants to. In a long conversation Wednesday, Potts pretty much railed against all things Republican — the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, the damages to this country’s infrastructure and economy.
“The grass-roots efforts of the Republican Party in Virginia have been pathetic,” Potts said. “The far right has frightened off so many people. You have a Republican meeting here, and 12 people show up — and it’s the same 12 people wanting to talk about social issues when Rome is burning.
“We’ve got the worst economy in god knows when, and they want to talk about Bill Ayers or abortion. Meanwhile we have a president, a Republican president, who’s presided over the largest deficit in the history of mankind, and they don’t seem to care. The Republican Party in Virginia is like an alcoholic — you have to hit the absolute bottom if you want to turn it around.”
After he spent several minutes praising Warner and trashing Gilmore and McCain, Potts got around to Obama.
“I have not decided who I’m going to support,” said Potts, whom you might have expected to break out into a chant of “Yes, we can!”
“I’m extremely disappointed with McCain. He’s run a lousy campaign. Their message has been off, and to top it all off — he chose someone completely unqualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. But I’ll still weigh everything.”
Potts’ ambivalence demonstrates just how far support of Warner can help Obama. After remaining neutral through the primaries, Warner formally endorsed Obama in early June at an event in Bristol, in conservative southwest Virginia. He next teamed with him in August, in Martinsville, where Warner remains popular because of his efforts to bolster the region’s economic base.
The truth of the matter is Virginia is a difficult state to, well, “get.”
In interviews with influential Republicans, Democrats and longtime observers of the state’s political trends, it becomes apparent that Virginia doesn’t behave the way people seeking a simple solution would like.
Race cannot be considered the overwhelming factor, just as the Warner’s popularity does not seem to transfer to the top of the national ticket. The state is trending Democratic — but toward Democrats that fit neither the northern liberal ideal or that of the Old South. Population changes have made Northern Virginia fertile for Democratic victory, but the defense industry’s interests still loom large, and has many tilt toward McCain.
Thus, of all the supposed battle states, Virginia remains perhaps the one most difficult to read strategically for both national campaigns. Yes, George W. Bush’s popularity ranks low here, while Warner’s is ungodly high. But just as McCain isn’t Bush, neither is Obama the same man as Warner.
“Virginians know Mark Warner better,” Faulk said of the gap, “and they’re not fond of Jim Gilmore. The thing with McCain is he’s a Virginia-moderate- type guy who simply plays well here. And McCain can win for that reason. But it’s just a matter of fact that Virginians know Warner so much better than Obama.”
However the question looming large — like a blimp over a sporting event — is could the Warner campaign do more for Obama?
Craig Brians, a Virginia Tech political science professor, observed, “I’m not seeing the kind of linkages being made between Gov. Warner’s campaign with Obama’s campaign. Maybe it is occurring or is about to occur — but right now I’m not seeing it.”
“In the southwestern part of the state,” said the University of Virginia’s Faulk, “a lot of people have joined this kind of McCain-Warner alliance. It is not something Warner is trying to clamp down. He’s not telling them to ‘Stop, please vote Obama-Warner.’”
Needless to say, the Warner campaign and the Virginia Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign have differing views on this. They point out that the literature being hand-delivered to Virginia homes by volunteers show both Warner and Obama together. A Warner campaign spokesperson added that Warner has done his best to do joint appearances with Obama — appearing with him four times and accepting his request to be keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
L. Douglas Wilder
“We’re campaigning aggressively for both the governor and Obama,” said Emily Kryder, a press secretary for the Warner campaign. “Drive around areas like Roanoke and you’re seeing Obama-Warner signs. All the pieces of literature from the coordinated campaign have Obama-Warner on them. We’re taking nothing for granted. It’s not like we’re eating bonbons till Election Day. That’s part of making sure we’re successful up and down the ticket on Nov. 4.”
Jared Leopold, communications director for the state Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign echoed Kryder’s sentiments. He also pointed out how much better Obama is faring in the state compared to John Kerry, and even Al Gore — both of whom lost by 8.03 and 8.20 percentage points, respectively.
“Every week we knock on 100,000 doors in Virginia,” Leopold said. “There are thousands of pieces of literature with Obama’s face next to Warner’s face. Mark Warner’s a very popular figure in this state, and his presence helps when we go to doors where people are sure about Warner and not so sure about the national presidential race. But for Obama, there’s no stronger vailidator than Mark Warner.”
Of course, the one issue rampaging in this campaign, with everyone running from it in mortal fear, is race.
The dynamics of racial politics resonate in Virginia, the state that elected the nation’s first black governor, L. Douglas Wilder. In his historic 1989 bid, Wilder held a double-digit lead in polls but won by only one-tenth of a percentage point. Many political analysts since have cited this election in saying that while white registered voters might tell pollsters one thing, they will not admit that they cannot vote for an African-American.
The truth is we won’t know if “the Wilder effect” will be applicable to Obama until after Election Day. What we do know is that despite all the literature and joint appearances — and even a remake of “I SPY” where Warner and Obama reprise the roles of Robert Culp and Bill Cosby — linking the success of the two campaigns will prove difficult.
What Virginia represents is a more nuanced political future. Yes, Warner — like Gov. Tim Kane and Sen. Jim Webb — belongs to the Democratic Party. But he, like Webb and Kaine, enjoys success as an individual that Virginians trust. Whether they’re Democrats seems beside the point.
“It’s just hard for me to see the effect a Senate race would have on a presidential race,” said Frank Atkinson, a venerable figure in Virginia politics who served in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Dept. and also as policy director for George Allen during his time as governor. “It’s possible there would be some, but the two campaigns are framed differently.
“Obviously you have a very close race — which is not really surprising,” Atkinson continued. “My thesis is that I’m tired of Virginia being described as a red state. It’s still considered a red state because of the way it’s voted in presidential races — but you should really consider the state purple.
“This is a state of winning streaks,” Atkinson said, ” In the ’80s it was dominated by Democrats. In the ’90s, it was the Republicans. Now in the 2000s we’ve seen a Democratic decade. I don’t think Virginia is a strong candidate to tip blue in a strong election — namely because of the strong Republican voter concerns about homeland security issues.”
But Atkinson, like many others, agrees that should external circumstances remain as they are, Obama might have the best chance since President Bill Clinton in 1996 to bring the state to the Democratic side of the ledger.
It might be true that Warner’s popularity can position Obama to win. But Warner cannot carry the day for the Democratic nominee, cannot let him glide in on what will most likely be a monstrous Senate victory.
Instead, Obama — so fond of basketball — has been delivered a decent look at the basket by Warner. Whether he can actually make the shot will be up to him.