By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama didn't just beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Virginia Democratic primary Feb. 12.
He defeated her so handily that Virginia politicians running for Congress or statewide office might want to study the results for clues about their political futures.
Obama's 28-point margin of victory was one of the largest percentage-point wins in recent history by a candidate in a supposedly competitive statewide primary or general election.
Obama swept all but a few precincts in Loudoun, Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington counties, often 2 to 1. He racked up similar victories in Richmond and its suburbs and in Republican-leaning central and southern Virginia.
And in Hampton Roads, Obama won strong majorities not only in Democratic-leaning Norfolk but also in more conservative areas such as Virginia Beach.
But the vote totals are only part of the story.
Almost 1 million people voted in the Democratic primary, nearly double the turnout in the GOP contest. According to exit polls, 37 percent of those voters had never voted in a Democratic primary before.
Politicians and strategists don't like uncertainty. If Obama wins the nomination, still a big if, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) says the Illinois senator would have a good chance of winning the state in the fall.
Obama would still face an uphill struggle to claim the state's 13 electoral votes, considering that Virginia last voted for a Democratic nominee for president in 1964.
In the 2004 presidential race, 3.1 million people voted in Virginia. That means Obama would have to find 600,000 votes to win the state in November, assuming he picks up all the people who voted for Clinton (N.Y.) last week.
But if what has been described by some as "Obamania" persists into the fall, there are at least three GOP congressional incumbents who shouldn't take anything for granted.
Reps. Thelma A. Drake, Virgil H. Goode Jr. and Frank R. Wolf are favored to win reelection, considering that Republicans drew their district boundary lines.
Each of those districts, however, could be susceptible to an uptick in Democratic turnout if Obama is at the top of the ticket.
Goode's district stretches from Charlottesville to Danville in south central Virginia. In Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, 3,918 people voted in the Democratic primary in 2004. Last week, 7,676 votes were cast, and Obama won 75 percent of them.
Goode's district is also 24 percent black. In the Danville area, where blacks account for 45 percent of the population, Obama won 77 percent of the vote.
After a narrow win in 2006 over Democrat Phil Kellman, Drake was expected to have an easier race this year, especially because a surge usually occurs among Republican-leaning military voters who typically cast ballots only in presidential elections. Democrats also struggled to find a well-funded candidate willing to take on Drake this year.
But in traditionally conservative Virginia Beach, 51,000 voted in the Democratic primary this year, compared with 30,000 in the GOP primary, suggesting more Democratic votes could be there than previously thought.
In Northern Virginia, Wolf's district includes a lot of young professionals in western Fairfax and Loudoun counties, which could dilute the solid GOP advantage in the rest of the district.
Everything would have to line up perfectly for the Democrats this fall, including a lower-than-average GOP turnout, for any of those incumbents to lose. It's not a likely scenario.
But pollster J. Brad Coker said GOP incumbents would be foolish to discount Obama's potential to bring more Democratic-leaning voters to the polls.
"It should be a reason for Republicans all the way down the ticket to be worried," said Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. "How much of this new, liberal voter that Obama is tapping into is going to be there in the fall? I just don't know."
But some people who voted for Obama last week might be unlikely to stick with him in the fall if he is the nominee. According to exit polls, 7 percent of the electorate in the Democratic primary self-identified as Republicans. Many of them were drawn to the polls by what they said was their hatred of Clinton and her husband, the former president.
Some of those voters came from such places as Poquoson, a city in Tidewater, where President Bush got 77 percent of the vote in 2004.
Obama won Poquoson, which is 95 percent white, with 54 percent of the vote. About 1,200 people voted in the Democratic primary last week, twice as many as showed up for the Democratic presidential primary in 2004.
There were also signs of traditional Republicans voting in the Democratic primary in Chesterfield County, where the turnout was so large and unexpected that there was a shortage of Democratic ballots. (Virginia voters do not have to affiliate with a party to vote in the primary.)
"With the Republican race settled, there is a temptation on the part of a number of Republicans to go into the Democratic contest and take care of the Clintons," Coker said. "I personally know two Republicans who did it."
If Clinton is the nominee, that could pose a challenge to former governor Mark R. Warner, the likely Democratic nominee in this year's U.S. Senate race.
If some Republicans are so eager to vote against Clinton in a Democratic primary, what will the GOP turnout be in November if she is at the top of the ticket?
And will Virginia's African American voters, nine of 10 of whom went for Obama, be energized to turn out if Clinton is the nominee?
If Obama is the nominee, Warner faces another set of problems in southwest Virginia, where Obama failed to break 15 percent in several counties despite winning statewide with 64 percent of the vote.
Warner is popular in southwest Virginia, but last week's results suggest he might have to campaign harder in that area to offset GOP efforts to tie him to the presidential race.
There are a lot of unknowns about how the presidential contest will affect races down the ballot. But one result of the Potomac Primary is undeniable: Virginia Democrats have been handed a gift.
They have a list of nearly 1 million people who voted in their primary last week, although some are Republicans. The state party can target those voters through next year's governor's race.
Just under 2 million voted in the 2005 governor's race, suggesting there could be an emerging Democratic majority in Virginia.