What will Obama’s win here mean for the 2009 elections?

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by Jessica Sabbath

In November, a blue tidal wave swept through Virginia, giving Democrats a U.S. senator, three new congressmen and 13 electoral votes for Barack Obama.

In fact, Virginia Democrats have had great success in every election since 2005, but few political observers believe the party’s strength in the commonwealth is permanent. “I don’t believe Virginia is a blue state,” says Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who co-chaired Obama’s presidential campaign, “but I believe Virginia is an independent state.”

Obama’s win in Virginia was historic. The Old Dominion hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964, a time when some areas of the state were still pushing “massive resistance” against the integration of white and African-American students in public schools.

The results in Virginia represented a swing of more than half a million votes from just four years before. In 2004, President George W. Bush, a Republican, won Virginia by 262,217 votes, capturing 53.58 percent. In November, Obama won the state by 234,347 votes, or 52.62 percent of the vote.

Northern Virginia’s fast-growing population has helped Virginia Democrats, but the party also has been able to make inroads into traditionally Republican areas, including the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Norfolk. This year, the party also received a major boost from Bush’s unpopularity and a flailing economy.

It’s unclear whether that momentum will carry over to state elections this fall. Voter turnout will likely be a key factor. All members of the House of Delegates will be up for election, as will the statewide offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. “There was much higher turnout among young voters and African-American voters in this past election,” says Stephen Farnsworth, assistant professor of communication at George Mason University. “The question is: Will these voters turn out in the future elections? ... It’s premature to describe Virginia as a blue state. It was a blue election, but
next year things could be different.”

Kaine agrees turnout has been a major factor in putting Democrats over the top in recent years. He won in 2005, Jim Webb beat Sen. George Allen in 2006 and the party eked out a majority in the state Senate in 2007. “[The Democrats] have done it by registering voters and turning out voters,” Kaine says. “President Obama’s campaign did a masterful job of extending that.”

In the upcoming governor’s race, the threat of a drawn-out primary battle could hurt Democrats. While Attorney General Bob McDonnell has the Republican nomination sewed up, two official candidates and a third potential candidate are seeking the Democratic nomination.

State Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County and Del. Brian J. Moran of Alexandria have long made their gubernatorial ambitions known. Terry McAuliffe, a McLean resident who is former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, changed the dynamics of the race in November when he announced the creation of an exploratory committee to test his candidacy. His fund-raising prowess could bring a lot of money into the race. “Current indications show that there will be a pretty aggressive fight for the gubernatorial nomination, and that’s going to create significant problems,” says Farnsworth. “Democratic donors will spend a lot of money fighting each other.”

Republicans have a six-seat majority in the 100-member House of Delegates. Democrats are likely to put up contenders to try to unseat Republican incumbents, especially in liberal-leaning Northern Virginia. “Every Republican in office within 30 miles of Washington, D.C., needs to hope that the Democrats can’t put forward a significant challenger given the composition of their districts,” says Farnsworth.

History is another obstacle for Democrats in holding onto the governorship. Since the mid-1970s, Virginians have been contrarian in picking a governor the year after a presidential election. If a Republican wins the White House, a Democrat gets the Executive Mansion, and vice versa. “There tends to be a headwind that starts blowing against the party that wins the presidency in Virginia, but also nationally,” says Kaine.

Leaders from both parties, however, seem to agree that ideas have become more important than party ideology in winning elections. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-7th, the newly elected minority whip in the House of Representatives, says Republicans can still win in Virginia, as long as they offer commonsense solutions to everyday problems. “I do think we have come into a new era where it’s not just about left versus right,” says Cantor. “I think it’s really about what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s the best way to move the commonwealth forward.”

Kaine’s advice to his party is similar: “My pitch to my party all the time at every election cycle is to be a problem-solver, be a unifier, and you’ll be fine … That’s not a partisan strategy. Anybody can wake up and be a problem-solver. Anybody can wake up and be a unifier. It’s just that Democrats have done a better job of doing that in the last few election cycles.” 

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