In bellwether district, Va. governor’s race stews in aftermath of federal shutdown

October 19, 2013

Rich Anderson knocks on doors seven days a week, for at least two hours a day. He’s not selling anything. He’s listening.

After 30 years in the Air Force, he’s used to straight talk. But what Anderson, a Republican who represents 80,000 residents of Prince William County in the Virginia legislature, is hearing these days is blunt to the max.

Knock-knock: “I’m fed up with all of you,” says Tony Smathers, a retired research physicist at the Naval Research Lab.

Knock-knock: “It must really suck to be a Republican right now,” says a federal worker who, truth be told, is a Republican herself.

Knock-knock: “Lifelong Republican,” says the woman at the door, a senior executive in the military. “I’m sorry — I have to tell you, I’m not apt to vote for anyone in my own party this year. Can’t do it.”

An analysis of previous Virginia gubernatorial elections.

These voters will help choose a new governor in two weeks, and they are gearing up to send a message about the most recent horror show in Washington.

At many doors, voters tell Anderson that they plan to hold his party and its candidate for governor, Ken Cuccinelli II, to account for the D.C. follies. Anderson winces and explains that Virginia does business differently from the jokers in Washington. Things get done, budgets get balanced, opponents work together.

At some doors, there’s a grudging nod, maybe even a thin smile. But at many, this genial state delegate is the convenient guy to vent at.

Thirty-five miles from downtown Washington, Richard L. Anderson’s turf includes Virginia’s most reliable political barometer, the ultimate bellwether: the Coles Magisterial District, which happens to have voted right — that is, for the winning candidate, no matter his party or philosophy — in a dozen statewide elections in a row. People here voted for Barack Obama, twice, for George W. Bush, twice, for gubernatorial candidates Robert F. McDonnell, Timothy M. Kaine, Mark R. Warner and James S. Gilmore II, and for Senate candidates Kaine, James Webb, Mark Warner and John W. Warner — winners all.

So the men who want to be governor — Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, and his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman — need to know: What are they thinking in Coles?

Answer: They do not like you. They cannot stand you. They want you to go away.

In interviews with more than 40 voters in Prince William’s Coles District, one — one — expressed actual enthusiasm for either candidate.

How the margin of victory in Virginia’s 95 counties and 38 independent cities shifted from the gubernatorial races in 2005 and 2009.

Coles voters are people of all walks, living in all kinds of settings. Prince William is part winding rural byways, part densely packed townhouse clusters, part cookie-cutter estate homes in developments that haven’t made it onto the road maps quite yet.

As more northerners, Asians, Hispanics and blacks have moved into new developments in Coles, the pattern of picking winners has persisted, a reflection of Virginia’s overall shift toward a more ethnically and politically diverse electorate. That change, which has turned a solidly Republican state into one with two Democrats in the U.S. Senate and two Democrats among the last three governors, is poised to alter the political lineup in Richmond, with Democrats in strong contention in all three statewide races this year.

(Coles is the northeast fringe of a vast congressional district represented by Rob Wittman, a conservative Republican from a tiny town 85 miles away.)

What unites Coles residents now is not any passion for particular candidates, but rather their desire to send a message that the elected representatives in Washington do not represent them. In their lives, you actually do the job you were hired to do.

There are no signs for Cuccinelli or McAuliffe in the Hunters Ridge development off the Prince William Parkway; the homeowners association doesn’t allow political signs in front of its 225 houses on large lots. But Delton Nichols, who has lived in Hunters Ridge for 14 years and spends two to three hours a day commuting to and from his federal job in the District, says there wouldn’t be many campaign signs on lawns even if they were permitted.

“People live here for a reason,” he says. (His house is adjacent to a stretch of thick forest; a sign at the curb says, “This Street May Be Extended in the Future.”) “You have a little more elbowroom, you work hard. The people here are informed and follow the issues. They’re people who believe we have to do all things in moderation. And then I look at this campaign, and I see one candidate far on the right and one on the left, and I don’t hear anyone excited about either of them. We’ve lost our way. Where is the moral courage? All this bickering is a waste of time.”

Nichols plans to vote for McAuliffe, largely because “I don’t like the hard line that Cuccinelli takes on those social issues. I’m a Christian, but God allows people the freedom to do things that maybe I don’t do. I agree that all life is sacred, but life is complicated.”

Similar conversations have taken place among Sheila Mitchell and her neighbors a couple of developments over from Nichols. Mitchell doesn’t work for the government anymore, but she spent nine years in the Air Force before starting a business that helps veterans navigate the benefits thicket. Many of her friends and neighbors, like a substantial portion of the Prince William workforce, have government connections, and she watched their struggles in recent weeks as they were told that because politicians couldn’t get along, they couldn’t work.

“We will vote, but we will cringe,” Mitchell says after discussing the election with her neighbors. “We’re looking at the governor’s race, and we’re going, ‘Yuck! What? Those are the choices?’ ”

Four years ago, when McAuliffe first ran for governor, Mitchell looked him over. “I thought, ‘God, he doesn’t look like you can trust him,’ ” she says. “Since then, research has shown I don’t think I can trust him. But then I look at Cuccinelli, and it’s, ‘Gosh, you don’t like women much, do you?’ ”

Mitchell is appalled by the Republican’s rhetoric on abortion and his proposal a few years ago to define “personhood” as beginning at the moment of fertilization, an approach that medical groups said could have limited women’s access to contraception.

All of that has Mitchell “leaning more toward McAuliffe but still juggling,” she says.

Both Nichols and Mitchell say they don’t define themselves by party, and both are avid supporters of their county supervisor, Martin E. Nohe, a Republican who has held the Coles District seat for a decade.

“We’re a true microcosm,” says Nohe, who runs a family-owned appliance store in Woodbridge. “I live in a nice, middle-class, older neighborhood, just down the street from a development I’ll never be able to afford. But the issues are all the same. We probably differ on the Affordable Care Act and whether we should fight in Syria, but on the things people really care about — reducing class size, protecting open space and the number one issue, how can we get our commutes shorter — we’re pretty much on the same page.”

Nohe has a Cuccinelli sign in his yard, but he shares his neighbors’ frustration that “on the bread-and-butter issues that people here care about, we haven’t heard much from the gubernatorial candidates.” Instead, what voters hear is attack ads from both sides about personal ethics and social issues.

Although Nohe shares Cuccinelli’s antiabortion position, the county supervisor notes that “no one is going to be persuaded based on social issues. People have their beliefs, and the candidates just use social issues to drive out their base.”

The one voter who expressed enthusiasm for either candidate was Desi Arnaiz — yes, his real name — who owns a small security and computer installation business. He and his wife live in Buckhall, a still-rural area where geese rest on wide fields, horses graze beneath white oaks and pickups sport bumper stickers that say, “I Don’t Believe the Liberal Media!” and “I Love Being a Bible Thumper!”

“We’re still mostly Republican where we are, because we’re in a pretty heavily protected area,” Arnaiz says. “We all have well water, and we all have septic tanks, and that protects us from development, and it separates the Republicans from the Democrats. The Democrats want government water and government sewage. We like it the way it is.”

Arnaiz, who is 76 and spent 25 years in the Air Force, likes Cuccinelli because “Ken’s very heavy up on pro-life, and where we are is heavily Catholic. Abortion, free love and same-sex marriage don’t sell well to us. McAuliffe is a frickin’ loser and a carpetbagger. Nobody here likes to be taxed. Nobody here likes to be pushed around.”

Although Arnaiz believes that Cuccinelli will prevail in Coles and across the state, he nonetheless agrees with neighbors of different ideologies that the issue that will decide the election is jobs. “My employees could care less about Syria,” Arnaiz says. “They’re interested in one thing: Do I have a job, and can I buy stuff?”

As Anderson moved from door to door, reminding constituents that he, too, is on next month’s ballot — running against Democrat R. Reed Heddleston, a financial consultant and retired Air Force colonel — he did hear about the economy. But mostly people wanted to talk about the dysfunction in Washington.

At Tony Smathers’s door, Anderson hears an earful about the shutdown and about Cuccinelli’s criticism of a University of Virginia professor’s research on global warming. “I don’t really know or care much about McAuliffe,” Smathers says. “I just don’t want Cuccinelli — strongly.”

Anderson replies: “This is a moderate district, and I’m a moderate guy. I believe when the majority has spoken, the issue is settled. We’ve got to find a civil way forward.”

Smathers isn’t hearing it. “You’re still one of them,” he says.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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