Republicans face new realities in a purple state

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Now we know what it means to live in a “swing state” in a presidential election. After being barraged with incessant, negative political ads for months, Virginians were in danger of becoming unhinged before Election Day.

Unfortunately, the results of the election only confirm that this process will be repeated in another four years. Do not adjust your set. Virginia is permanently purple.

That fact comes as a shock to many people who had assumed the commonwealth’s dalliance with the Democratic Party in 2008 was a one-time fling. Barack Obama won the Old Dominion on his way to his first term in the White House. The election marked the first time a Democrat had carried Virginia since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was elected to a full term less than a year after the assassination of John Kennedy.

Virginia’s honeymoon with Obama, however, appeared to be brief. Republicans swept the state’s top offices in a landslide in 2009; Democrats lost three Virginia seats in a congressional bloodbath in 2010; and the GOP gained virtual control of the General Assembly in 2011.

Given credit for Republicans’ resurgence in Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell was widely mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate. That didn’t happen, but McDonnell, an avid Mitt Romney supporter, probably would have been invited to join a Republican administration had the former Massachusetts governor prevailed in last month’s election.

McDonnell’s move to Washington would have set off a chain reaction changing next year’s race for governor in Virginia. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling would have served out the remainder of McDonnell’s term, giving him incumbent status and a needed boost in a race against the current front-runner for the Republican nomination, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

All of those aspirations, however, now are ashes in the wake of Obama’s second conquest of Virginia. Having failed to deliver his state to Romney, McDonnell will finish his tenure in Richmond as a lame duck governor with diminishing influence. His party faces an internecine battle between the lieutenant governor and the attorney general for the favor of diehard conservatives, who hold the keys to the Republican gubernatorial nomination to be decided in a party convention later this year. Those commitments will result in a nominee who, like Romney, appeals primarily to aging white men, a shrinking sector in a rapidly changing electorate. 

Wasn’t this the mistake that Republicans vowed not to repeat after Romney’s defeat? 

How many votes in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida did Romney forfeit by trying to outflank Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich as the toughest hombre on illegal immigration in the primaries? Likewise, in addition to dooming their own “can’t-miss” candidacies for Senate seats, how many voters throughout the country did Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock alienate with their idiotic comments about rape?

Many Republicans, including McDonnell, have attributed the Republican Party’s failure to attract women, minorities and younger voters to faulty communications. The party just hasn’t done a good job of getting their message out, they say.

But the party’s actions, not its message, are sowing the seeds of its destruction. Akin and Mourdock poured fuel on a fire begun last winter when the Virginia legislature passed medically unnecessary new regulations on abortion. A Democrat-proclaimed “war on women” resulting in Obama’s 11-point margin among female voters might not have occurred without the unwitting aid of the Virginia’s GOP legislators.

The Republican Party also faces challenges in attracting young voters. In a Richmond speech before the election, University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato said young people he encounters are fiscally conservative, a trait that should draw them to the Republican Party. But, the analyst said, these potential recruits are repelled by the party’s social agenda. Ultimately, he said, the party may have to weigh the costs of its ties to the religious right.

Nonetheless, the Virginia GOP holds some advantages in trying to keep the Executive Mansion and the State Capitol under its control in 2013. As Sabato and other political observers have noted, Virginia generates a different electorate for presidential elections than it does for state elections. Voter turnout in 2008 and 2012 was higher than 70 percent. By contrast, only about 40 percent of voters went to the polls in 2009, the last gubernatorial contest. When turnout is low, Republicans often win.

Next year’s turnout will be affected by voters’ enthusiasm for the gubernatorial candidates.  In early November, Terry McAuliffe was the only Democrat committed to running. A former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a close friend of former President Bill Clinton, McAuliffe failed to win the nomination in 2009, losing to state Sen. Creigh Deeds. Would McAuliffe generate more buzz among Democrats on a second attempt?

The Democratic candidate likely will face a Republican nominee with a fervent conservative following. In a low-turnout election, an edge in enthusiasm might be just enough to carry the day.
All bets would have been off, however, if U.S. Sen.

Mark Warner had decided to abandon Washington gridlock

for a second term as governor. In addition to boosting

Democratic turnout, he also would have siphoned many Republican votes away from the GOP nominee. The highly popular Warner may be the ultimate purple politician. 

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