Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the Virginia primary as expected, but the impressive returns of his lone opponent, Rep. Ron Paul, offered additional evidence of voter dissatisfaction with the Republican front-runner.
Paul won 40.5 percent of the vote, easily his strongest percentage showing since the Texas congressman began running for president in 2008, garnering more than 107,000 votes. Romney took 59.5 percent. Romney won 43 of 46 delegates available in the primary.
The limited competition made the contest one of Super Tuesday’s least suspenseful, but Virginia’s political significance will be demonstrated in the presidential contest in November.
Fighting a coast-to-coast battle against multiple opponents, Romney has barely campaigned in Virginia and has almost no infrastructure in place.
President Obama’s reelection operation, by contrast, has five offices and more than a dozen paid staff members in the state, with more on the way. Obama also has made frequent trips across the Potomac River; he will be back in the state Friday to deliver a speech on the economy in Prince George County, south of Richmond.
“There’s the irony,” said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “Although [Romney] got an easy slate of delegates, probably it would have been better for his campaign in the long run to have had a competitive race in Virginia.”
Yet with Virginia expected to receive so much national attention — former governors George Allen (R) and Timothy M. Kaine (D) are likely to face each other in a marquee U.S. Senate race — Republicans say their nominee will be ready when the time comes.
“President Obama has a stronger and more rapidly growing organization in the state, but that’s to be expected, given that we’re still in a nomination battle,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), Romney’s Virginia campaign chairman.
Bolling said the support of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) gives Romney immediate access to their campaign organizations. And if Romney wins the nomination, he will inherit control of the four “victory” offices that remain open after being established by the state GOP.
Still, Obama supporters say they have a decisive head start.
“Our campaign in Virginia is second to none and will remain that way through November,” said Obama Virginia spokesman Frank Benenati. “We’ve already been on the ground for over two and half years through Organizing for America, and we are ramping up our efforts in every corner of the commonwealth to build the biggest grass-roots effort Virginia has seen — this before the Republicans even have a nominee.”
The state has swung widely over the past four years. Since Obama won Virginia in 2008, the first Democrat in four decades to do so, Republicans have prevailed in three consecutive elections, picking up the governor’s mansion, three congressional seats and state Senate control.
In a memo Tuesday, Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley cited recent Virginia polls showing both Obama’s job approval numbers and the share of voters saying he deserves reelection at under 50 percent.
“Aside from lousy polling numbers, Ohio and Virginia have something else in common that is even more telling,” Wiley said. “Not a single Democrat has won a statewide office in either state since Obama took office.”
Yet those same surveys also include warning signs for Romney. An NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday found that 50 percent of likely GOP voters said they were unsatisfied with the field and wished another candidate would run.
Democrats say Romney has taken positions that will make him vulnerable in key regions of the state.
They argue that Romney’s criticism of federal workers, his call for privatizing Amtrak and his support for a budget plan that would cut transportation spending will resonate poorly in voter-rich Northern Virginia. And in the Hampton Roads region, which is heavily dependent on the military, Democrats plan to attack Romney for suggesting last year that veterans could be given vouchers to pay for private health care.
At the polls in Alexandria, Charles Pearcy, 75, a retired military officer who supported Obama in 2008, said he has turned to the GOP because he likes Romney’s competence and leadership.
“He’s been a governor. He saved the Winter Olympics,” Pearcy said. “Although I admire the president, I think Mitt Romney has more experience with these large organizations.”
At Retreat Doctors’ Hospital in Richmond, Mary Lou Trache, a paralegal who gave her age as “over 60,” said she voted for Paul because she likes his stance on domestic issues, including bringing down the national debt. “I really admire his character and steadfastness,” she said. “I like [that] what brought him into politics was going off the gold standard.”
Trache doesn’t think Paul has a chance to win the nomination, but she wanted to register her unhappiness with Romney.
“He doesn’t seem as authentic a person,” she said.
At Ida Lee Park in Leesburg, independent Sandi Brown-McCullough said she was disappointed to see such a low turnout. She also said she was “not happy” to support any of the Republicans.
“I am an economic conservative, but I am not conservative socially, and there are things about the Republican candidates’ social views that really distress me,” she said.
Brown-McCullough said she liked Paul the most of the GOP candidates, but she cast her ballot for Romney strictly because he is “the most electable.”
Bolling said it was common for primary voters to complain about ballot choices.
“People are never happy,” he said. “People are always looking for Superman, but there is no Superman. There is no perfect candidate.”
Staff writers Jeremy Borden, Caitlin Gibson, Anita Kumar, Patricia Sullivan and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.