By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 2, 2007
RICHMOND, Nov. 1 -- Hundreds of party activists from other states are planning to join Democratic and Republican workers in Virginia this weekend to help get out the vote in Tuesday's state legislative election, an effort that some officials describe as the first battle of next year's presidential and U.S. Senate races.
The most expensive General Assembly campaign in history, and one of the most negative, is now shifting to the all-important ground game, in which both parties are trying to get their supporters out to the polls in what is traditionally a low-turnout legislative election.
Virginia Republicans, seeking to maintain control of the General Assembly, are trying to match a sophisticated Democratic get-out-the-vote effort. Republicans are busing in volunteers from as far away as Texas, while the Maryland Democratic Party sent out an urgent e-mail Thursday looking for volunteers to send to Virginia this weekend.
"It's an 'all-hands-on-deck' type of thing," said John H. Hager, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.
Republicans and Democrats say they view Tuesday's election as a key test of GOP resiliency after the Republicans lost two successive governor's races and last year's U.S. Senate race. And with signs that Virginia's 13 electoral votes could be up for grabs in next year's presidential race, the national party committees are sending people and money to Virginia to test turnout strategies they plan to deploy nationwide in 2008.
"A win in Virginia will send a powerful message around the nation about next year and the outcome of the 2008 elections," Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) said while soliciting Democratic volunteers to help get out the vote.
Nationally, Republicans have been widely credited for having a better get-out-the-vote effort, known as the 72-hour plan, that President Bush used to win the White House, easily carrying Virginia both times. In an election such as Tuesday's, in which turnout is traditionally low, GOP leaders say several of their candidates will have an advantage because they can mobilize conservatives to come to the polls.
But in recent state elections, officials in both parties say Democrats have controlled the ground game.
J. Kenneth Klinge, a longtime GOP strategist from Fairfax County, said Republicans no longer "know where their voters are," especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia.
"They died," he said of GOP voters. "They moved away. They got old. They got discouraged because the party turned into something they didn't enjoy very much."
Democrats have been perfecting their turnout strategy since 2000, when Mark R. Warner (D) sent paid staff into neighborhoods seeking voters sympathetic to the Democratic message as he prepared to run for governor in 2001.
Warner spent $3.5 million canvassing 2.4 million households to identify who his campaign could count on come Election Day.
Four years later, his successor, Timothy M. Kaine (D), built on Warner's strategy through micro-targeting, or finding people in the outer suburbs who voted Democratic in presidential but not state races.
"I learned early that I wasn't going to win by looks and I wasn't going to win by smarts, but I could win by a ground game and by work," said Kaine, who won by 113,615 votes.
Because of the governors' efforts, Virginia Democrats have a list of more than 1 million names to contact to support their candidates. Webb used it a year ago to help defeat Sen. George Allen (R).
Kaine is employing a similar strategy this fall as he tries to help Democrats gain the four seats needed to retake the Senate and some of the 11 needed to win control of the House.
The Virginia Democratic Party's coordinated campaign, which is responsible for turning out voters for all Democratic candidates, is headed by Alan Moore, who led the coordinated campaign in 2005.
Some Republicans fear that their party has been slow to recognize Warner's and Kaine's skill at mobilizing core Democratic voters.
Since the 1990s, when Allen and former governor James S. Gilmore III (R) oversaw efficient get-out-the-vote operations, Republicans have had a harder time tracking who they can count on to get to the polls, GOP officials said.
And even though Republicans in other states have excelled at identifying core supporters, Virginia Republicans say the national party has been slow to invest in similar strategies in Virginia because it has been considered a reliably red state in presidential years.
"I think there is definitely a recognition, we kind of got away from the emphasis on the grass roots," said party official Mike Thomas, who managed Allen's 1993 campaign for governor.
Still, Republican leaders believe they are well positioned to turn out their voters on Election Day, in part because their conservative base is galvanized about several issues, including illegal immigration.
"The campaigns have entered a new phase," Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said. "Your message is delivered. Now you have to get people to the polls."
The GOP has set up phone banks in Fairfax, Richmond and Hampton Roads and enlisted volunteers to call or visit 250,000 voters in targeted districts across the state. An additional 200,000 were encouraged to vote by absentee ballot.
The Republican National Committee is sending hundreds of volunteers to Virginia in the final 72 hours to wave signs, attend rallies, knock on doors and make phone calls. It also sent an e-mail to hundreds of thousands of local supporters to recruit volunteers in Virginia for get-out-the-vote efforts.
The Young Republicans are sending 60 to 70 out-of-state volunteers to Fairfax County this weekend to knock on doors, make calls and drop off campaign literature.
Such efforts will be bolstered by campaign stops throughout the weekend by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell. Allen and Gilmore also will hit the campaign trail.
Republicans say the Democrats' efforts will fail because this is not a statewide campaign. Control of the Senate will rest on a handful of competitive races, several of which are being waged in traditionally Republican districts. In 2003, the last year when no statewide candidate was on the ballot, just 31 percent of voters went to the polls.
Several GOP candidates, such as Sens. Ken Cuccinelli II (Fairfax) and Nick Rerras (Norfolk), have spent years identifying key supporters in their districts.
And in the race between Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax) and Democrat J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen, Devolites Davis can rely on a get-out-the vote effort perfected over the years by her husband, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va).
But Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University, said Democrats appear to "be more organized" overall.
The Republicans face more of a challenge this year because they have been out of the governor's mansion since 2002, and in recent years have been split between moderates and conservatives.
"It may be a feature of the party being somewhat splintered on what issues should be emphasized,'' Rozell said.
Democrats, backed by the national committee, will be flooding the voters on their list with mail, phone calls and multiple visits.
Labor unions, who view Virginia's elections as a test run for next year's presidential race, are also flooding the state.
The AFL-CIO is mobilizing 150 union volunteers in Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia and Roanoke, and they have knocked on 8,000 doors. Democrats also are getting help from the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights organization, and the Sierra Club.
"We have a ground operation here that is unmatched," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who is seeking reelection. "We have never seen anything like this here."
Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.