Will Republican ‘overreach’ be gift for Obama?

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Print this page by Robert Powell

If Barack Obama wins Virginia next month in the presidential election, he should thank the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

In every presidential election from 1968 through 2004, Virginia was a stalwart in the GOP column. Obama broke the string in 2008, benefiting from the brief national resurgence of the Democratic Party and the popularity of state Democratic leaders such as former governor, now senator, Mark Warner.

Leading up to the 2012 election, Virginia looked like it would return to its old Republican pattern. Former Attorney General Bob McDonnell was elected governor in 2009 in a landslide that saw Republicans sweep all three statewide offices. In addition, Republicans gained effective control of the legislature when a 20-20 split in the state Senate gave Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling the deciding vote.

As evidence of the Republican momentum headed into 2012, McDonnell’s name was widely circulated as a potential vice presidential candidate.

But, now as the presidential campaign enters its final stretch, Virginia is anything but a sure bet for the GOP.  Despite being saddled with slow economic recovery and a national unemployment rate of more than 8 percent, Obama was deadlocked with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in mid-September. Instead of being on the ticket helping to sway Virginia to the GOP, McDonnell now is being mentioned for a consolation prize, a possible seat in Romney’s Cabinet, should he win.

How did this happen? How did Republican momentum in a conservative state fail to turn the tide?

The graphic above from the website Real Clear Politics offers some insight. Real Clear Politics closely follows polls throughout the country, paying special attention to battleground states such as Virginia. The website typically monitors four or more polls in many contests, compiling an average for each candidate over a period of time.

A chart following the presidential race in Virginia from late 2011 until September is revealing. When pitted against Romney as a possible challenger in late 2011, Obama trailed the Republican by more than three percentage points. But something happened in early 2012. The margin narrowed and then the chart flipped, with Obama on top. Two things were happening at that time. Romney was eliminating his GOP rivals, and Republicans were at work in the General Assembly.

Virginia Business holds a political forum before each year’s legislative session at which a group of veteran political observers – journalists, political scientists and former state cabinet members – try to predict what will happen at the state Capitol in coming months.

During the last roundtable, panelists were asked if they expected Republican legislators to use their newfound power to ram through social-issue legislation that had been thwarted in the past by a state Senate controlled by Democrats. The panelists said no. They expected the legislators to act with restraint knowing that they otherwise could jeopardize McDonnell’s national prospects. Besides, they noted, Democrats in Washington had been punished at the polls in 2010 for their “overreach” in passing a massive health-care reform law.

Those predictions proved to be wrong.  Over the loud protests of Democrats (and the reported anguish of the McDonnell administration), Republicans passed new abortion legislation, making the lawmakers easy targets for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Enraged groups of women made national news for an unauthorized sit-in on the Capitol steps.

To borrow a line from an old Dierks Bentley song, Virginia Republican legislators need to ask themselves, “What was I thinkin’?”  For whatever reason, they violated what should be a cardinal rule of politics: Stay away from social issues unless absolutely necessary.

The turmoil over abortion legislation was a self-inflicted wound, akin to Obama’s decision to force Catholic institutions to cover contraceptives under their employee health plans. The legislators’ actions fueled the flames of a Democrat-proclaimed “War on Women,” bolstering Obama’s substantial lead among women voters.

In addition, the Republicans’ misstep probably alienated a growing segment of the Virginia electorate, the “come-heres” who have moved to the commonwealth from other states. A survey taken by Public Policy Polling in August, for example, showed Obama leading Romney by five points, but the Republican held a six-point lead among voters who have lived in Virginia for more than 20 years. Obama’s overall lead was the result of an overwhelming rejection of Romney by voters who had moved to the state in recent decades: 62-32 among those who have been residents for less than 20 years; 67-29 among those who have moved in during the past 10 years.

These come-heres could be a deciding factor in a close contest. When George Allen ran for re-election for the U.S. Senate in 2006, he faced an electorate that included a multitude of voters who had moved to Virginia since 2000. In other words, they had never cast a ballot in an election in which Allen was a candidate. Despite the fact he was a former governor as well as a one-term senator, many of these voters were unacquainted with Allen until his notorious “macaca” incident.

Republicans blamed the press for Allen’s defeat by Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary under President Reagan. I beg to differ. As last winter’s debacle in the General Assembly shows, the press can stamp its feet, and no one pays attention. But when just the mention of your name becomes a punch line on “The Tonight Show,” the game is over. Allen was laughed out of office, and the joke is on the Republican Party again if Obama wins Virginia in November. 

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