By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006
Was it Republican Sen. George Allen's mistakes, or a Democratic tide? Northern Virginia's dominance, or a new kind of suburban voter changing the commonwealth's politics?
Or maybe the virtual tie between Allen and Democratic Senate nominee James Webb in the state's hugely important Senate contest was simply fitting, the latest evidence that Virginia may be emerging on the national scene as a state up for grabs despite the fact that no Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson has been able to grab it.
There is reason for optimism and concern on both sides about Tuesday's results. Democrats cautiously celebrated the possibility of bumping off a nationally known senator previously thought invulnerable and watched Northern Virginia's booming suburbs continue to fall in line.
"I think we're getting there," said Peter Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster who worked for Webb and was an architect of Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's campaign last year. "I think it's a very competitive state."
He said that in his recent polls, Virginians who were asked to identify their political leanings split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans. In previous years, he said, Republicans had an advantage of up to 6 points.
Republicans consoled themselves yesterday by agreeing that if they can get through this Democratic year, they can get through anything. They pointed to Allen's strong showing in the rest of the state and rejected the notion that the 2006 elections were a valid gauge of change in the state.
The Allen campaign was too unusual for comparison, they said; even Kaine, at an election eve rally for Webb, said that what had started as a "road to coronation" for Allen turned into "Dante's Inferno."
"I think Virginia is for the most part a pretty solid Republican state," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), elected last year in a tight race and considered a likely candidate for governor in 2009. He rattled off Republican successes: at least one U.S. senator, or both, depending on the outcome of Allen's race; eight of 11 members of the state's congressional delegation; control of both houses of the state legislature; and two of three statewide-elected officeholders.
"Having said that," he continued, "if you're a Republican and look at last year's election and then this one, what's making this competitive is the changing voting patterns in the Northern Virginia suburbs."
Every discussion of politics in the Old Dominion eventually comes back to Northern Virginia, and numbers show why. Anchored by the state's largest jurisdiction and home to two of the nation's fastest-growing counties, there are nearly 400,000 more voting-age adults in the region than when Allen won in 2000, and they were not kind to his candidacy Tuesday.
Even when he ran in 2000 against a Northern Virginian, former senator Charles S. Robb, Allen lost by only 3 percentage points and 30,000 votes. This year, Webb beat Allen by 116,000 votes and 17 points in the region. About half of that margin came from Fairfax County, the state's biggest place and an important symbol of the change in the state's politics.
"Fairfax used to be the bellwether for the state," Brodnitz said. "Now it's considered a critical piece of the Democratic map."
And it is significant that fast-growing Loudoun and Prince William counties, which broke years of tradition last year by supporting Democrat Kaine in the governor's race, remained in the fold for Webb yesterday, albeit with smaller margins than Kaine enjoyed.
It means that in the past three years, the region has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee, governor candidate and Senate hopeful, respectively. "I think that trend is going to continue rather than change," Kaine said in an interview on election night.
But some other trends showed that the area, especially the outer suburbs, are hardly Democratic strongholds. Though Northern Virginia as a whole opposed the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, Loudoun, Prince William and the other outer counties joined the rest of the state in approving it.
And Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William supported the two Republican congressmen, Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf, who have represented the area for years.
Wolf won 57 percent of the vote against his well-financed but politically inexperienced Democratic rival, Judy Feder, below his average totals. "Republican numbers were down across the country," campaign manager Dan Scandling said. "To sit there and say that Frank Wolf's numbers were down because everything's changing just is not accurate. . . . It was the environment. It wasn't some huge demographic swing."
Likewise, Davis's 55 percent was his smallest winning percentage since he took the seat from a Democrat in 1994, but Davis downplayed its significance. "This wasn't a Northern Virginia phenomenon," he said. "This was people saying, 'Tom, you've done a great job, but we've got to send a message to George Bush.' You've got to take a look at the context of the year."
But Davis, who is mentioned as a possible candidate for the Senate when Sen. John W. Warner (R) decides to retire, has been outspoken about his state party's lack of outreach to the Washington suburbs and his view that the party spends too much time on social issues at the expense of the more practical governance issues of education and transportation.
Added Bolling: "We have to show a real interest in the needs and challenges of Northern Virginia."
Virginia Tech demographer Robert E. Lang said: "Quality of life, fixing the urban space of Northern Virginia, is the big political question. How do you make what we built . . . a better place?"
Kaine said those kinds of issues favor his party because former governor Mark R. Warner convinced Virginians that Democrats are good at governing. Like Warner, Kaine has high popularity ratings, and polls show that voters have a sunny outlook about the state's direction.
Kaine believes those issues translate well to other parts of his increasingly suburban state. He'll push that message next year, when the entire General Assembly is up for election; he wants a Democratic majority.
And he said Webb's showing Tuesday "puts [Virginia] in play" in the 2008 presidential contest. If Warner, who recently abandoned his idea of running for president, were the Democratic vice presidential nominee, he said, Virginia would be a logical place for his party to expand its base.
Staff writer Amy Gardner and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.