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The race for Virginia, a few miles from the White House

November 2, 2012

To understand politics in the United States today one need look no further than the Commonwealth of Virginia, the state that abuts the nation’s capital Washington, D.C. In the recent past, this traditionally conservative stronghold has experienced the kind of demographic changes, controversial arguments and partisan bickering that has also shaped the political discourse at the national level. Being one of three hotly contested battleground states (along with Florida and Ohio), on November 6th Virginia will also be a great vantage point to follow election returns, both in terms of the race for the White House and the battle for the US Senate.

With its 13 electoral votes, Virginia is a must-win for Mitt Romney in particular. “If the Governor doesn’t win here, it might be very difficult for him to reach the 270 electoral votes he needs for the presidency,” says Jim Nolan, a reporter with the Richmond
Times-Dispatch. “On the other hand, if President Barack Obama takes Virginia, while also holding on to his lead in Ohio and a couple other swing states, most observers generally think that he will be reelected.”

The race is now as unpredictable as they come, a seesaw affair with polls moving in one direction or another but always strictly within the margin of error. With the result so uncertain, both camps are concentrating almost exclusively on turning out their base. “The President’s team is focusing on micro-targeting very small groups of voters based on professions and lifestyles, but Governor Romney and the Republicans are also mounting a very substantial voter contact campaign, something that was really lacking back in 2008 when John McCain was running,” says Nolan.

Undoubtedly, in Virginia as well as nationwide, voter turnout will be the key to this election. Many new voters went to the polls in 2008 to support Obama and made it possible for the Democrats to turn Virginia blue for the first time since 1964. “The real question this year is whether the so-called enthusiasm gap can be bridged, that’s the battle that the President is really fighting, trying to ramp up, for his reelection, that same level of enthusiasm that existed in the past,” says Nolan.

On election night, the key counties to watch will be Loudoun and Prince William in northern Virginia and Henrico, outside the state capital Richmond. George W. Bush won all three of them in 2004 before they went for Obama in 2008. Voting behavior here faithfully reflects the state and national levels and, therefore, returns in these counties will be highly predictive of what happens overall. Additionally, in recent years Loudoun and Prince William counties in particular have undergone dramatic demographic changes, which have the potential of changing Virginia’s electorate forever to the advantage of the Democrats. A steady influx of new residents has been moving here, in what are now considered exurbs of liberal bastion Washington – young voters, minorities, and federal workers of one sort or another. They were the ones that carried Obama to victory in 2008 and, if they turn out again in similar numbers this year, they might put the President over the top once again.

Although Virginia’s economy is outperforming the US’s as a whole (with an unemployment rate that, at the end of August, stood at 5.8%,) voters here appear to be as concerned with issues such as growth, joblessness and the federal debt as people across the country. “It’s unclear how much credit Obama is getting for the stronger economy in Virginia vis-à-vis the rest of the nation,” says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, “research is indecisive on how much national economic feelings outweigh individual state feelings.”

Besides general issues related to the state of the economy, residents of the Commonwealth also contend with specific concerns of their own, for example sequestration, the possibility that deep, automatic defense cuts will take place at the beginning of 2013 if Congress doesn’t reach a deal on the debt by then. “Sequestration is huge here as Virginia’s economy is more reliant on federal spending than almost any other state,” explains Skelley. In the northern part of the state, defense contracts and the military support hundreds of thousands of jobs. And along the coast in the southern half of the state, the Navy is king with, among others, the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk. By some measures, Virginia could lose up to 200,000 jobs if Congress were to go through with sequestration. “This however isn’t an issue that’s easily won by either side politically because both Democrats and Republicans were responsible for the deal that made this threat possible, so neither of them is really coming out ahead on it.”

In the southwestern part of the state, energy, and the coal industry in particular, is paramount in voters’ minds. New regulations drafted by the much-maligned Environmental Protection Agency in Washington have miners concerned about the future of their jobs and people in general worrying that the price of energy might go up. Romney and the Republicans have campaigned heavily on this issue, releasing a number
of ads that tout the governor’s support for American coal.

Finally, in the last few months, Virginia has also been front and center in the fight over women’s health and access to contraception and abortion that has also dominated the political theater nationwide. A couple of legislations sponsored, at the beginning of the year, by the Republican majority in the state assembly (a personhood amendment that would have the state constitution declare that life begins at conception and a law that would require women to get a mandated ultrasound before having an abortion) stirred huge controversy and might end up propelling Virginia female voters to the polls to support Obama and the Democrats. Liberals are pushing hard on social issues in Virginia, reminding women here that a Republican president may get the chance to nominate at least two Supreme Court justices in the next few years and, therefore, open the door to Roe vs. Wade being overturned.

In the end, though, the election in Virginia might turn on a much more obscure and surprising factor: Conservative Party’s Virgil Goode, who is on the presidential ballot in the Commonwealth. “Goode could potentially complicate things for Romney if the race in Virginia ends up being decided by a few thousand votes,” says Skelley, “it’s hard to see him getting more than 1%, but if the race between Obama
and Romney is that close, Goode’s take from Romney’s column could prove decisive.”

The Commonwealth’s impact on the next US government is not limited to the race for the White House. Also unfolding here is one of the most closely watched contests for the US Senate, between former Democratic governor Tim Kaine and former Republican Senator George Allen (to fill the seat being vacated by Democrat Jim Webb.)

“It looks like Kaine may be running ahead of Obama in the polls – there are apparently a fair number of Romney-Kaine voters,” says Skelley. “Therefore, it seems he is a slight favorite at this point and that Allen will need Romney to win Virginia by a few percentage points to clinch the seat.” According to the Center for Politics analyst, government spending has been a chief issue for both campaigns. “Kaine has criticized Allen for having supported the Bush tax cuts and the spending for two wars, causing our deficits to balloon as a result,” he says, “Allen has criticized Kaine for having been Obama’s chair at the Democratic National Convention and for having defended the stimulus and the healthcare legislation.”

No change in the current balance of power (with 8 seats held by Republicans and 3 by Democrats) is expected at the Congressional level instead. “Earlier this year the general assembly and state legislature passed a new redistricting plan and Republicans, because they ended up controlling the state legislature after the 2010 midterms, largely redrew some of the lines to favor those office-holders they had in their districts while also preserving those three largely Democratic seats,” says Nolan. “So I think the chance of any major change in the Congressional balance is very slim.”

This means that, among others, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will almost certainly return to Washington in January to represent, once again, Virginia’s 7th District.

In the end, we can stay assured that, with its increased prominence at the level of national politics, we will keep hearing about Virginia for a long time to come. Starting again in 2013, when state residents will go back to the polls to elect their next governor. And history has it that, in the last thirty or so years, whichever party wins the White House ends up losing the Virginia governor’s mansion right after. So, at least in the Commonwealth, even those who are defeated on November 6th have something to look forward to.

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

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