The Magazine

Ground Zero for the GOP

The first rematch of the Obama era will be the Virginia governor's race this fall.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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New Virginia voters have tipped the balance to the Democrats. (Although Virginia voters don't register by party, Republicans' 39-35 percent advantage in 2004 exit polling plummeted to a 33-39 percent deficit in 2008.) For several elections, Democrats have been running up increasingly large margins in voter-rich Fairfax County, but the real 2008 story, says the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman, was in the Tidewater and Richmond regions where Democrats' turnout soared, and Obama won by healthy margins.

Obama's success in Loudoun, Prince William, and Spotsylvania reflects the Republicans' nationwide problem with nonwhite and young voters. With nonwhite voters showing double digit gains in Northern Virginia's outer suburbs, the pool of reliable white, conservative voters shrank as a percentage of the electorate. Similarly, the GOP's poor showing with young voters became acute when Obama turned out huge numbers in college towns (up 49 percent in Charlottesville, for example).

The open question, both in Virginia and nationally, is whether these gains are permanent or a result of a once-in-a-lifetime Obama turnout machine that targeted -Virginia as a swing state. (Obama successfully raised turnout 15 percent with huge gains among African Americans, a phenomenon not sustainable in nonpresidential election years.)

Some attribute the GOP's woes not to larger national or geographic trends but to poor candidates or poor campaigns, ruefully recalling the failed 2005 governor's race when Jerry Kilgore emphasized the death penalty, illegal immigration, and social issues but spoke little about bread-and-butter Virginia issues like education and transportation. Others point to a spate of embarrassing public gaffes by rural Republicans as evidence the party is too extreme or unwelcoming to minorities.

The guessing game about whether Republicans can bounce back is intensifying in Virginia thanks to the 2009 gubernatorial race--the first big political race of the Obama era. Eight times since the 1970s, Virginia has elected a gubernatorial candidate from the party opposite to the one which captured the White House the prior year. Even aside from this historical trend, Republicans like their chances in Virginia.

For starters, the Democrats lack a dominating candidate like former governor and now senator Mark Warner or his successor, Tim Kaine, and are headed for a hotly contested primary. Former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe is spending heavily to overpower two other contenders, Brian J. Moran, until recently a state delegate, and state senator R. Creigh Deeds. (Moran and Deeds are respected Virginia politicians who "have pounded the pavement," says Wasserman, but both lack an easy path to the nomination.) By contrast, McAuliffe will have tens of millions of dollars from across the country (Virginia has no campaign finance limits) and the best team and ads he can buy.

Republicans are keen to match up against McAuliffe. "A good case can be made that, despite his money and national connections, McAuliffe would be the toughest sale to make to Virginians for Democrats. His Clinton baggage alone will cost him a lot," says Sabato. "And no one thinks he fits the long-time image of a Virginia governor." It came as a surprise to many Virginians that McAuliffe was even a resident given his complete lack of participation in local politics. (He explored a run for governor of Florida several years back.)

While the Democrats are headed into battle, the Republicans have already settled on a candidate, Virginia attorney general Robert McDonnell. He is a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army, a father of five (whose daughter just returned from service in Iraq), a Northern Virginia native, and a Catholic. He is conservative on social issues, but known for his bipartisan, workmanlike approach as AG and for his attempts to forge a deal on Virginia's knottiest issue: transportation.

Republican strategists think they finally may have a candidate suited to win across the state. McDonnell was the last statewide Republican candidate (in 2005) to win suburban counties like Prince William, Loudoun, Henrico, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach. Even if he does not win Fairfax County--where one in seven Virginia voters lives--Republicans think he can get at least 45 percent of those voters while doing well in the outer suburbs and his home base of Virginia Beach and in more rural areas.