By Tim Craig and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Virginia residents' negative feelings toward the Bush administration and the national Republican Party have not tarnished state Republicans or broadly diminished their chances to keep control of the General Assembly after the Nov. 6 election.
Although Virginia residents say they strongly disapprove of the war in Iraq, more than half of the state's voters approve of the state Republican Party, and a sizable majority has confidence in the state government to make the right decisions for the future.
At the same time, Virginia's pivotal bloc of independents, particularly those in vote-rich Northern Virginia, holds the state Democratic Party in even higher regard than the state GOP. And independents, about 30 percent of the state's adult population, feel closer to the Democratic Party on health care, global warming and such divisive social issues as abortion and gay rights and are about evenly divided between the parties on the economy, traditionally a Republican strong point.
The findings stem from a poll conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The survey paid particular attention to political independents, who will probably decide whether Democrats make inroads in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Virginia Democrats have been trying to capitalize on residents' frustrations with the Bush administration and federal issues as they try to pick up the four seats needed to retake the state Senate and some of the 11 seats needed to regain the House of Delegates.
In 2006, when war-weary voters handed Democrats control of Congress, the GOP lost more than 300 state legislative seats nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The mood in Virginia toward the war and the national Republican Party has darkened this year. In the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey, just one in three independents in Virginia had a favorable impression of the Republican Party nationally, compared with 53 percent who felt that way about the national Democratic Party. The negative view of the national GOP stemmed largely from the war; six in 10 residents said it was not worth fighting.
But the survey suggests that Virginia voters are compartmentalizing their views about state and national politics and might not punish state GOP leaders for decisions made in Washington. Fifty-four percent of voters said they have a favorable impression of the Virginia Republican Party.
"I feel more comfortable with the state government. I feel the state is in better shape financially and we are progressing toward having better highways," said David Przybocki, 52, of Manassas. "With the federal government, how can you be comfortable with them? Everything is so secretive. . . . We went over to fight a bogus war."
Virginia Republicans might be benefiting from the General Assembly's decision this year to put aside years of infighting and approve a plan to raise more than $1 billion annually to build more highways and expand mass transit.
According to the survey, nearly six in 10 residents said it is "extremely" or "very" important that the state spend more on transportation. The survey was taken before July 1, when a series of steep "abusive driver" fees went into effect, which has led to complaints.
As they jockey with Democrats for support from independents, Republicans stand to gain from their party's traditional opposition to higher taxes. Republicans hold a 13-point advantage among independents when asked which party better represents their views on taxes.
With no statewide races or galvanizing issues on the ballot, the turnout for this year's election is likely to be relatively low. In 2003, the last off-year election without a governor's race, 31 percent of the state's registered voters cast ballots. Moreover, there is little evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with state government that might motivate more voters.
The survey found about three-quarters of Virginians have "a lot" or "some" confidence in Richmond to make the right decisions about the state's future. Confidence in the commonwealth's government is as high in Northern Virginia as it is south of the Rappahannock River.
But the poll includes several warnings for Virginia Republicans as they try to recover from losing two successive governor's races and last year's U.S. Senate race.
Sixty-four percent of residents said they had a favorable impression of the Virginia Democratic Party led by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), a 10-point advantage over the state Republican Party. In Fairfax County, where Republican Sens. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, Ken Cuccinelli II and James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. face strong challengers, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they had a favorable impression of the state Democratic Party.
The Democrats' advantage suggests Kaine has a receptive audience for his argument that the state's quality of life and business climate have improved under his and former governor Mark R. Warner's tenures.
"I just think we are fortunate to have had a Kaine and Mark Warner," said Raymond Service, 77, a self-described independent from Appomattox. "They both have a strong desire to do a good job for the people in the state and the state in general so it will be a better place to live for everybody."
The Virginia Republican Party diverges from the views of many residents on such issues as abortion, gun control, gay rights and immigration, according to the poll. Despite the state's conservative reputation, residents' positions on those issues are not out of step with public opinion in the rest of the country, according to a Post-Kaiser-Harvard national survey conducted concurrently with the Virginia poll.
Nearly six in 10 Virginia residents say they think the United States should have tougher gun control laws, an issue that has gained prominence in Virginia since the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech. There is a large gender gap on this issue: Nearly seven in 10 women favor stricter gun laws, while men are split evenly.
By a 54 to 40 percent margin, Virginians also say they think abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances. Cuccinelli, O'Brien and Devolites Davis oppose abortion rights; 67 percent of Fairfax residents support them.
A narrow majority of residents said same-sex couples should be allowed to get married or enter a civil union. In Northern Virginia, seven in 10 residents support same-sex marriage or civil unions.
The findings indicate a more nuanced view of the issue than the one Virginia voters expressed in the fall, when an up-or-down vote on a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions passed with 57 percent of the vote.
The poll also found broad support for the death penalty; more than six in 10 residents favor it.
With Congress failing to act on illegal immigration, some Virginia Republicans want the state to enact laws to discourage illegal immigrants from taking up residence in the state.
But the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey found that only about a third of Virginians say they think illegal immigrants already living and working in the United States should be deported. In Northern Virginia, residents by more than a 2-to-1 margin said those illegal immigrants should be offered a chance to keep their jobs and apply for legal status.
Judith Black-DiFazio, 59, of Vienna, said she struggles with her feelings on how the government should respond.
"On one side, you have to worry about terrorists, but on the other side you have [illegal immigrants] who swim the Rio Grande river to get medicine to save their dying mothers," she said.
The Virginia poll was conducted by phone May 3 to June 3 among 1,708 randomly selected adults in Virginia. Results from the full poll have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins are higher for subgroups.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.