After three consecutive years of strong Republican performances, the Democrats’ win in Virginia on Tuesday night underscores the commonwealth’s status as a seesawing state, giving both parties reasons for hope and heartburn as gubernatorial and state races loom next year.
The victories by President Obama and Sen.-elect Timothy M. Kaine suggest that the state is moving toward the middle, but perhaps no further. The demographic shifts in Northern Virginia might be permanent, but Virginians are notoriously independent-minded, which means any candidate can capitalize at the ballot box.
Kaine (D), who ran as a centrist, told reporters in Richmond on Wednesday that if his win over George Allen (R) is any indication, the key to running for office in “purple zone” Virginia will be a personal, positive appeal to voters. Many of them, he said, could be wooed by candidates with the right message.
“Many of these jurisdictions would not be red or blue, but they’re open to persuasion,” Kaine said, citing Prince William, Loudoun, Suffolk and Albemarle counties and Chesapeake. “They have some history of splitting tickets. They’re pretty heavily independent, and they’re going to vote based on the case you make.”
Still, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said Wednesday that the Republican Party has to make its message of fiscal conservatism and the “opportunity society” appeal to young people, minorities and others who have gravitated toward Democrats.
“The Republican Party has a lot of work to do,” McDonnell said in Richmond. “Two elections in a row being lost is not good for our team.”
Former congressman Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who works at the liberal Center for American Progress, said both parties face challenges going forward in Virginia. He said that Democrats “built this unbelievable operation” to bring out the vote but that they did so in 2008, too, and then the organization decayed.
“The challenge on the Republican side is the clear direction of trends you see across the country, that the party is increasingly controlled by a conservative wing that is less appealing to Virginians,” Perriello said.
He said voters want the two parties to strike deals on issues such as transportation and higher education funding.
Virginia’s recent election results mirror a national pattern: When turnout is high, Democrats can win. When it’s lower, Republicans are favored.
Turnout in Virginia among registered voters topped 70 percent in 2008 and again Tuesday. But that number dropped to 40 percent in 2009, 44 percent in 2010 and 29 percent in 2011, all elections in which Republicans gained ground.
“The saving grace for Republicans . . . is that state and local elections aren’t held on the federal calendar,” said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who studies voting behavior.
Presidential election years tend to bring out the kind of young, diverse voters that can boost Democrats. Network exit polls showed a Virginia electorate Tuesday exactly mirroring that of 2008: 70 percent white, 20 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian.
In the Senate race, exit polls showed Kaine won 62 percent of Hispanics and 92 percent of African Americans, as well as 63 percent of voters younger than 30. Levar Stoney, the former Virginia Democratic Party executive director who works for gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe, said the key for Democrats is “making sure these individuals get off the couch and come vote in off-year elections.”
It’s unclear which voters will show up in 2013, when McAuliffe is expected to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nod while Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling battle for the Republican nomination. (Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said Tuesday night that he would announce by Thanksgiving whether he would also jump into the governor’s race.)
During a CNN appearance Wednesday, McDonnell said the election results were particularly worrisome in Northern Virginia.
“We’re losing the exchange as you see up there in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun, so we’ve got to do a better job in explaining to people why the conservative view of America is better for them and their pocketbooks,” McDonnell said.
Not all Republicans were as concerned. On the conservative Virginia blog Bearing Drift, Shaun Kenney noted that the White House and both chambers of Congress simply stayed put.
“Nothing was lost tonight folks,” Kenney wrote. “Everything remained tangibly the same. Just like the week before when you felt good about America.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.