Poll Shows Va. GOP's Vulnerabilities

By Tim Craig and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Voter approval of the Republican-led Virginia legislature has plunged over the past seven years, and fewer people now see the state as headed in the right direction, according to a new Washington Post poll. Nevertheless, Democrats lack clear advantages on key issues, limiting their hopes of regaining control of the General Assembly next month.

The poll reveals weaknesses for the state's Republicans and higher overall satisfaction with Democrats, which would benefit Democratic candidates if the Nov. 6 election becomes more a referendum on the GOP than a contest about particular issues. All 140 seats in the legislature are up for grabs, and Democrats need to win four to gain a majority in the Senate and 11 to do so in the House of Delegates.

Democrats have tried to make a case that change is needed, saying that GOP feuding has stalled progress on quality-of-life issues. Legislative Republicans, meanwhile, have held a series of news conferences downplaying their divisions. They say that they would keep taxes low and fight illegal immigration and that they have the better plan to improve Virginia's schools and health-care system.

The poll suggests that Republicans are burdened by their party's poor image statewide, which might be partly attributed to President Bush's low approval ratings and the public's frustration over traffic issues.

The General Assembly passed a transportation funding bill in February, but Republicans are not getting credit for it. Fifty-six percent of likely voters polled said they disapprove of the way Republicans in the General Assembly do their jobs, compared with 45 percent giving negative ratings to the Democrats.

When asked which party they would like to control the legislature, 50 percent of likely voters said Democrats, and 42 percent said Republicans. (Seven percent volunteered that they would prefer a divided General Assembly.) A bare majority of registered voters, 54 percent, said the state is headed in the right direction, down sharply from 2000, when 71 percent thought so.

Despite these advantages for Democrats, there is no clear issue on which they can base a statewide campaign to gain control of the legislature for the first time since 1999.

A third of likely voters call transportation either the state's most or second-most important issue; that number jumps to more than half in Northern Virginia. Twenty percent highlight jobs and the economy. Four other issues rank closely behind. But when asked what they would base their vote on, about equal percentages describe the economy, immigration, taxes and transportation as "extremely important."

In recent weeks, Republicans and Democrats have begun flooding mailboxes and airwaves with ads trying to capture the public's attention in what could be a low-turnout election in a year with no statewide or national contest on the ballot. Emboldened by the summer-long storm over abusive-driver fees, many Democratic candidates have sought to gain the advantage on transportation, saying the state GOP hasn't done enough to ease gridlock.

The fees were designed by GOP legislators as a partial substitute for a statewide tax increase to build more roads. They are proving to be tremendously unpopular.

Nearly two-thirds of likely voters oppose the fees, which range from $750 to $3,000 and target serious traffic offenses and those with multiple driving violations. Fifty-six percent of likely voters said they are less likely to vote for a candidate who supported them.

"All I see is someone doing a quick fix trying to raise revenue instead of addressing the real issue," said John Brace, 53, of Loudoun County. "I feel we are coming into gridlock and we are not doing anything about it. . . . We are just sticking our fingers in the dam."

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