The new normal

Virginia’s swing state status is no fluke, but 2013 could attract a very different electorate

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Virginia Business invited five veteran political observers to comment on the November election, the upcoming gubernatorial election and the 2013 legislative session in a roundtable discussion Nov. 14 at the Berkeley Hotel in Richmond. The session was held before Sen. Mark Warner and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling decided not to run for governor in 2013.The panel includes: Ben Dendy, a former senior staff member to two Virginia governors who now is president of Richmond-based lobbying firm Vectre Corp.; Whitt Clement, a partner in the Government Relations practice at Hunton & Williams who formerly was a state secretary of transportation and a member of the House of Delegates from the Danville area; Chelyen Davis, a political reporter at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg; Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the Center on Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington; and Jeff Schapiro, a political reporter and columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A longer version of the discussion can be found on


Virginia Business:  We’re going to start out looking at the November election. Was anyone surprised by the outcome [in which President Obama carried Virginia for a second time and Democratic former Gov. Tim Kaine won a U.S. Senate seat] and what lessons does the presidential election offer for political parties in Virginia? 

Farnsworth: I think that when we look at this election cycle we really see a changing dynamic in Virginia.  When you look at the northern counties around the D.C. area, you see an increasingly Democratic percentage with each election cycle.  I think that one of the really powerful dynamics that isn’t getting as much attention is the extent to which the larger Republican counties are less Republican than they used to be.  You see that around here, of course, in Chesterfield, but we also see it in Fredericksburg with Stafford and Spotsylvania where once upon a time the Republicans would win 2-to-1, and now in many cases the Democrats are getting 45 percent of the vote.

I think that one of the things that the post mortems of this election cycle have to deal with is that the Republican message is resonating less effectively, even in areas where it generally has had pretty high levels of success in the past.  I think that has to do with the changing nature of who’s moving into these areas, as you have younger people moving into town houses and the second wave of migrants to the suburbs are far less Republican than the first wave.  The challenge for the Republicans is how to speak to those people.

Schapiro: I think that one of the messages that emerged from the presidential campaign, first of all for our Republican friends, that this is not a fluke.  Of course, President Obama carried the state in 2008 comfortably.  His majority was somewhat reduced this go-round, though he came out of the Northern Virginia jurisdictions with a 209,000 vote majority.  That’s somewhat lighter than the 234,000 vote majority he had in Northern Virginia in 2008 and, coincidentally, his majority statewide … In Virginia, where there is an election every year, there are different electorates, and as a consequence we have these somewhat inconsistent results.  It is not a surprise, I would argue, that Bob McDonnell was elected in a landslide a year after Barack Obama comfortably carried Virginia.  The turnout had plummeted from 74.5 percent in 2008 to 46 percent in 2009 …  [That] would suggest that perhaps next year … in the election for governor we are going to see similarly steep declines in turnout and quite possibly very different results.  This is one of the consequences.

Davis: You asked if we were surprised, and we all play the prediction game like anybody who’s kind of obsessed with politics.  I was not surprised simply because I wouldn’t have been surprised with any result because it was so close, at least if you believed the polls, and I think the polls were borne out by the results.  I think it’s very interesting that Virginia is such a tossup in presidential elections now that, as Jeff says, it seems to be not just a fluke.  It seems to be permanent.

Clement:  I think next year will be more business as usual, but [the presidential election] does send a signal, I think, to the state Republican Party that they’ve got to be more sensitive about some of the issues that are important to the growing diversity in Virginia, such as … immigration, for example.

Dendy: I think it really sends a message to both parties.  I think the challenge for the Democrats is: How do they motivate those voters, at least a good portion of them, to come out?  The McDonnell turnout in that 2009 election was much lower than a typical state election.  I think the Democrats have to be careful about running three white men.  I think both tickets would benefit from some diversity on their slates, and people might respond to that.

VB: In looking at the Senate election, was anyone surprised that Kaine did better than Obama did?

Clement: I was not.  I thought that there was a much greater likelihood of Kaine picking up Romney votes than [Republican former Gov. George] Allen picking up Obama votes.  I think therein lies a big reason for that difference.

Davis: I could see the Romney/Kaine voter.  I could not see the Obama/Allen voter. I thought Kaine would probably pull through…  But also I do think that Allen may have been [hurt] somewhat by ‘06 and all the issues that were still surrounding ‘06 [when he lost his Senate seat to Jim Webb] …  Kaine talked about bipartisanship … I think voters want … somebody to say, “I’m going to go to Washington and try to get along with everybody, and we’re going to try to actually do something about some of these big issues.”

Schapiro: Maybe the paradox is that George Allen as a gubernatorial candidate was very successful in 1993 in part because there was a new Virginia.  There was a stronger Republican reflex.  There was a great deal of fatigue over 12 years of Democratic rule.  He was undone by an even newer Virginia in 2012. 

Dendy: Tim Kaine is a very able elected official … He knew what he needed to do.  I think Democrats for years were concerned about: How do we handle the national ticket?  … He made the decision that he was going to be tied to Barack Obama, and he joined him at the hip and at the same time he chose a few issues that he could separate himself and show his independence.  He was comfortable in his own shoes throughout that campaign.  I think Allen in many ways was trying to find himself.

Farnsworth:  I think this also speaks to the point that Jeff made a moment ago about the different electorates in Virginia.  If this election had been two years earlier, I imagine that George Allen might very well have won, and if it were two years later it might also have been a better year for Allen.  It’s important to recognize that the 2012 electorate with its expansive nature because of Virginia’s swing state status really didn’t help Allen.

There’s one larger issue I think that also is out there.  You have to appreciate how challenging it was for these candidates to be heard in the presidential din.  I think that both Allen and Kaine were really struggling to get attention from the public and, in some cases the media, because we had presidential candidates in the state every week … I think it creates a very difficult opportunity to be heard, particularly if you want to brand yourself as a newer George Allen … Rebranding, of course, is particularly important in Virginia because so many of the voters in the 2012 electorate weren’t voters in this state six years ago … When I talk to my students about that 2006 campaign, I might as well be talking about the Battle of Thermopylae.

Dendy: I just wanted to make one other quick point that I think was amazing.  According to Bob Lewis with the [Associated Press], $52 million was spent by Super PACs and social organizations in this campaign. Two thirds of that money was either against Kaine or for Allen.  I think it’s amazing that that much money was spent, but I think what we’re seeing with the Super PACs is that they don’t have a united message.  Kaine actually individually raised more money than Allen, so he got his message out.

VB: Now we’ll turn to the governor’s race and the General Assembly.  I’d like to get input from all of you as to what kind of matchup you expect in the governor’s race. 

Farnsworth: I think that we’d probably be looking at something along the lines of [Republican Attorney General Ken] Cuccinelli and [former Democratic National Committee Chairman] Terry McAuliffe … I think McAuliffe will have to figure out a way to become much better known.  As amazing as it is to contemplate, we’ve already had a post-election poll of the governor’s race that has come out, and it shows really high levels of ignorance about who Terry McAuliffe is.  Now that might not surprise us, but that’s the challenge that he faces.

Schapiro: To quote George Allen, that Quinnipiac poll indicates that there’s a “real Virginia” out there in that so many people are unfamiliar with Terry McAuliffe.  He may be a household name within the Beltway and to the Washington crowd, but to the people whose opinions really count, he is a question mark at best… 

The big problem, I think, [for Democrats] will be the different electorate that is produced in a gubernatorial year.  That, coupled with Cuccinelli’s skills and his very unusual selection of issues and interests, make him, I think, a far more formidable candidate than people think.  I don’t think he is easily pigeonholed as some red-eyed, right of reason, conservative.  This is a guy who’s raised questions about the death penalty.  This is a guy who’s raised questions about the restoration of voting rights for felons … These are going to be very powerful talking points in a gubernatorial election year, particularly in a more thinly attended contest.

Dendy: I think it’s interesting to note with Cuccinelli in 2007 he was the only Republican incumbent senator re-elected to the [Virginia] Senate from Northern Virginia.  Additionally, I think it’s interesting … that despite the fact that McAuliffe has low name recognition, he was ahead of both Bolling and Cuccinelli in the poll.  I would have anticipated that, just on name recognition, he would have been significantly behind both of them.

Davis: Cuccinelli is a very good campaigner.  While he’s got some baggage and certainly more baggage, I think, than Bolling does, you know where he stands on things.  There’s no real question about where Ken is on a lot of issues. 

Clement: I think that Terry McAuliffe has two challenges.  He’s got to define Cuccinelli early, and that’s what I think Democrats will be expecting of Terry.  At the same time, he is an unknown quantity, and he’s got to also define himself in such a way that gives people a reason to vote for him and not against Cuccinelli, who is a much better-known quantity.  I think a lot of it’s going to depend on how well Terry McAuliffe is able to put Cuccinelli in a box early without depriving himself the opportunity for people to know him better.

Dendy: None of us mentioned the curse, and I think that’s amazing.  I think there’s really something significant to that curse.  [Since 1977, no Virginia governor has been elected from the same party that won the White House the previous year.] I think it’s that there is a real buyer’s remorse about the president in his first year, and these are the first elections in the country [after the presidential election].  With the problems facing the president in Congress, that could be an even greater issue than it normally is.

VB:  What should be done to move transportation initiatives forward?

Clement: All of the easy alternatives have been pursued.  We’ve issued a lot of debt.  I don’t think anybody thinks that we can really issue more debt.  The governor two years ago acknowledged that debt was a short-term solution.  The transportation community, the road builders and the like, all got behind that on the condition that there’d be recognition in the short term, and we needed a long-term fix.  Last year the biggest accomplishment was [selling] naming rights to bridges. 

The indexing of the gas tax is one serious option.  Another one is scrapping the gas tax.  It hasn’t been raised since 1986.  Its purchasing power is hovering around 40 percent of the value of the dollar since 1986. [It would be replaced] with the standard, statewide sales and use tax that we pay on goods.  That in itself would raise some $730 million.  That would more than take care of our maintenance needs.  There have been other suggestions as well.  For example there is more use now of hybrids and [energy-efficient] cars.  There’s discussion about imposing some sort of annual assessment so that they pay their fair share.  I think you’re going to see more serious proposals like that rather than some of the ones that we’ve seen recently.

Schapiro: I think that Whitt nicely frames what I think is the bigger complexity and that is that the problem has been neglected for so long that there are no real reliable broad-based solutions that can be quickly put in place.  For example, increasing the fuel tax.  Had there been an index that would raise it, Virginia would have been able to somewhat keep pace with its needs on transportation.  Clearly, a fuel tax increase would produce a spike in new revenue, but again because of the continuing efficiency of motor vehicles, in short order it would decline.  That there are new solutions necessary does not mean that there is any unanimity.  For example, should Virginia consider an Oregon-like model, a mileage tax?  There’s a certain odor of “big brother” to that.  It’s been put in place in places like the Netherlands and there have been lots of tradeoffs.  I don’t know whether folks in the countryside who don’t have mass transit and have to drive considerable distances to get things done would be too happy with that. 

Then I wonder … if part of the solution is another look at the template for managing our transportation system.  We’ve had a unified system … a centrally managed system since the 1920s.  There was a reason for that.  It guaranteed political control in Richmond, but it also at least in theory meant that there would be uniform quality across the state.  We’re not seeing that anymore.  Maybe it’s time to move to some type of decentralized, balkanized model.

Farnsworth: I’m a bit concerned that things haven’t gotten bad enough that a solution is likely to take place … The reality that, I think, we often have to appreciate in politics is, if you ask a politician to do something that’s difficult, they’re not really very interested.  If you suggest to Republicans who have campaigned for much of their careers on no new taxes, the idea of making these sorts of adjustments raises questions of fidelity to Grover Norquist [the president of Americans for Tax Reform], but more importantly perhaps this [also raises the question] of whether you would face as a primary opponent somebody who has a more consistent anti-tax message … I think that we’re looking at a very problematic situation, not only with respect to transportation here but also the larger state budget as a consequence of the difficulty of making a serious long-term solution with respect to the federal debt…. 

Dendy: I think the answer is that each side, much like Washington, is going to have to come a little bit to the other side’s position.  The Senate is going to have to agree to take some additional general fund revenues and the House is going to have to agree for some new revenues.  Until they come to that point of each reaching a compromise and each giving a little, I don’t think we’re going to see anything.

Davis:  I’ve been covering the General Assembly since 2001, and we have been talking about this issue virtually every year since then.  A lot of these things have passed.  We have public-private partnerships, and we have tolls and … we’re still talking about the enormous $1 billion deficit that we have in transportation funding. 

I wanted to speak specifically to a point that Jeff brought up that’s kind of esoteric, and it’s not about where you get the money, it’s how you distribute the money.  As I’m sure everybody here knows, it’s currently distributed through transportation districts and various formulas that have been weighted and have been the same for a long time, and we’ve seen some bills in recent years that would sort of shift that.  They would change the formulas or they would change things in ways that would provide more benefit to the more urban districts and the places that are having some serious congestion problems.  So far, those haven’t passed, but with each redistricting, we’re seeing more power go to Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the urban areas. The rural guys, who have been able to sort of stop these things and who benefited when these formulas were drawn up however many decades ago, aren’t going to be able to stop that forever.  So I think that is an interesting shift in the way the transportation is going to be discussed, maybe not this year but in coming years.

Clement: The fact is that the formula is inapplicable. There’s no money to go through the formula, and that’s been the case for several years.  There is no secondary road money.  People from the Southside argue about getting transportation dollars based on the number of roads in the area.  Northern Virginia says it ought to be based on the number of vehicles. There’s no money for either one right now … The plain fact is there’s no formula that works right now … That would be part of a comprehensive transportation reform package that gets the dollars to the places where they need it.

VB: We have a proposal on the table to privatize the operation of the Port of Virginia, one of the state’s greatest economic engines. Should Virginia move forward with privatizing the port? 

Dendy: I think the Port Authority has a responsibility to continually assess their status.  We know that in the two down years that they went down further than any East Coast port.  We know that during the last two years they’ve come up less than any East Coast port.  We know that 65 percent of the ports across the country are publicly owned and privately operated….  I think the Port Authority and Gov. McDonnell are doing exactly the right thing.  They’re examining the situation and seeing what needs to be done…

Clement: This issue is a very complicated one.  I do think Gov. McDonnell has acted very properly in examining the books and the operations down there. [Virginia International Terminals] the operating arm of the Port Authority, has had a monopoly for many years.  It’s just natural that you would fall into a certain way of doing business and be content with that. 

The governor does deserve credit for sending signals of his concern about the status quo.  For whatever reason, our port has had a tougher time recovering from the recession than our competitors on the East Coast….

I think that maybe privatization in the operations is the answer… At the same time, I think the state has got to be very careful in jeopardizing that most valuable asset of the commonwealth.  The other ports on the East Coast all get general funds from their states.  Our port does not.  [It] gets part of the gas tax …and that money has been used to make investments in the port that have enabled us to be as competitive as we are…
They’ve got two viable proposals [from outside bidders].  They need to be looked at carefully and evaluated, and whatever comes out of it I think our port will be stronger. 

Schapiro: There are a number of nuances to this issue as Ben and Whit have pointed out just from an operational perspective, but there are a number of political nuances as well that I suspect the legislature is going to keep in mind.  First of all, the governor cleaned house on the port’s governing body.  He claimed that his concern was that the authority was not bouncing back [from the recession] with the brio that he had expected….

I think that there may be some market issues that are affecting performance there that have not been fully explored.  Ben is correct that many of the ports have some element of private operation.  At least one of the proposals envisions turning the entire port over to a single [private] operator.  That is unique.  There is no port in the country at least of which I’m aware that has such an operating agreement. 

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