An affluent and increasingly diverse exurb, Prince William, like neighboring Loudoun County, has become a pivotal county in Virginia politics, voting Democratic in one election, Republican the next.
Now Cuccinelli (R) and McAuliffe (D) are targeting the counties, making opposite bets on whether that partisan seesaw will continue this November in a state that has elected governors from the opposite party of the president for nearly three decades.
Area leaders and business owners will have the chance to hear from both Friday, as they will appear jointly at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas for a 10 a.m. event sponsored by the chambers of commerce from Prince William, Loudoun, Fredericksburg and Reston. McAuliffe and Cuccinelli will appear back to back, fielding questions on economic policy from a panel of business leaders. The forum will be live-streamed on wusa9.com.
“The reason we’re calling this the ‘Battleground Forum’ is that we’re sitting right smack in the middle of it,” said Susan Spears, president of the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Obama won Loudoun narrowly and Prince William by a wide margin in both 2008 and 2012. But Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) won both counties with ease in 2009, and each has plenty of GOP local officials. In 2011, Loudoun voters elected Republicans to all nine seats on the county Board of Supervisors.
Loudoun is the wealthiest county in the United States, based on median income, while Prince William is seventh, according to U.S. Census data. (Fairfax and Arlington counties are second and third, respectively.) They are also diversifying rapidly, with new voters pouring in, and Prince William is Northern Virginia’s only majority-minority county.
Both campaigns are focused intently on the exurbs — even if they’ve not made an impression on Georgetown South. Cuccinelli, who lives in Nokesville in Prince William, has a combined four campaign offices in Prince William and Loudoun and another in Fredericksburg. He makes regular trail stops there, and will hit the Prince William County Fair on Friday night after the joint forum.
McAuliffe has made two dozen stops in Loudoun and Prince William, and his canvassers have knocked on 30,000 doors in the two counties since mid-May, according to his campaign.
Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have spent much of their race accusing each other being unfit for office and talking about ethics controversies. But beneath all the personal vitriol lie deep disagreements on policy, from taxes and energy to health care and education. Perhaps most importantly to Friday’s audience, they don’t agree much on traffic congestion — aside from the fact that it’s bad.
On the campaign trail, McAuliffe regularly laments how hard it is to get from his house in McLean to watch his kids play sports, while Cuccinelli — who commutes from Nokesville to Richmond -- also complains about the time he spends stuck in the car.
Cuccinelli was an opponent of both the Silver Line rail extension and the transportation overhaul approved by the General Assembly earlier this year. Those are stances McAuliffe — who backed both endeavors — eagerly points out to Northern Virginia audiences.
Cuccinelli has countered that he won’t reverse either venture and would be a more frugal steward of transportation dollars than McAuliffe, whom he accuses of being too closely aligned with unions.
Tony Howard, head of the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce, said “we’d like to know what more the state government is going to do” to help alleviate the costs of the Silver Line, rather than keep increasing tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.
The Bi-County Parkway — a controversial proposal to link Interstate 66 in Prince William to Route 50 in Loudoun — is especially relevant to Friday’s audience. Most business leaders in both counties support it, though some critics say the project is unnecessary or could disturb Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Cuccinelli has said before that he recognizes the need for the parkway and thinks “it can be done without messing up the battlefield.”
McAuliffe has not taken a position.
“Terry is committed to listening to all sides and generally wants to reserve judgment on proposed projects like this until he is able to evaluate them in office,” McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said. “He feels that we have to unlock Dulles to drive stronger economic growth, but we need to weigh that against local traffic impacts and impacts on landowners.”
Jeanine Lawson, who is volunteering for the Cuccinelli campaign, is one of many residents who have spoken against the Bi-County Parkway.
“I don’t know if the chamber plans to ask the question, but as a citizen I sure do hope they do,” Lawson said. “It is a hot topic in western Prince William, especially.”
Manassas, the site of Friday’s forum, is itself divided, both politically and economically. The sprawling western end has seen booming growth and wealth, while the county’s older eastern end is seeing signs of growth and development but is mostly known for snarled Route 1 traffic and dilapidated buildings along the thoroughfare. The two sides are often split politically, as well, with Democrats faring better in the east and conservative Republicans better in the west.
In Georgetown South — which is in a voting precinct the went for Obama, then McDonnell, then Obama — many said Thursday they didn’t know about the governor’s race or upcoming forum, and even if they did, they expressed a deep dissatisfaction with politics and political leaders. Some said they probably wouldn’t vote.
Doris Perez, 43, said she voted for Obama last year. Despite the ongoing debate over comprehensive immigration reform, Latinos don’t have much to show for their support, she said. “We didn’t see any result,” she said. She doubted whether she would pay attention to politics anytime soon.
“Maybe if they promise something and the promise came true,” she said.
Many immigrants in the largely Latino community aren’t reading the newspapers or watching television, said Meg Carroll, Georgetown South’s community manager.
Unless there is a ribbon to be cut, Carroll said she rarely sees politicians in the community. “They don’t pay attention to this group, this low-income class,” she said. “They don’t (usually) vote for anybody and they don’t contribute campaign dollars.”
The opposite is true in Loudoun, where Chris Cormack, broker-owner of CC Sells Realty in Leesburg, saw McAuliffe at a campaign event with real estate brokers Thursday morning.
“The issues he brought up I just thought were very interesting, like his tax program, his education platform, we liked that — what he was saying about teachers, and getting them more support,” Cormack said.
But when asked whom she was voting for, she said: “I haven’t formed an opinion quite yet.”
Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.