By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama ended the Republican grip on Virginia's electoral votes yesterday when he became the first Democratic presidential nominee in 44 years to carry the state, raising fresh doubts about the long-term health of the state GOP as suburbanites defected to the Democrats in droves.
With all but a few precincts reporting, Obama was leading Sen. John McCain by more than 100,000 votes.
Obama won the state's 13 electoral votes after he racked up huge margins in the cities and swept every jurisdiction in Northern Virginia.
Virginia Republicans declined to concede early this morning that Obama had won the state, saying there were still votes to be counted, including overseas absentee ballots. But Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) told a crowd of Democrats gathered at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner about 11 p.m. that Obama had become the first Democrat to carry the state since 1964.
The crowd erupted, pumping fists, jumping and embracing, and snapping pictures with cellphones.
"Tonight, Virginia and our nation have taken a massive step, a mighty, mighty step," said a clearly emotional Kaine, who was one of Obama's earliest supporters.
Obama's win capped a successful night for the Democrats as Mark R. Warner easily won his Senate race, and Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly was elected to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R). Two other GOP members of Congress from Virginia -- Thelma Drake and Virgil H. Goode Jr. -- were in danger of losing their seats last night.
The strength of the Democratic ticket this year in all parts of Virginia is the latest sign that the once-reliably conservative commonwealth has rapidly shifted away from the GOP in statewide races.
As both parties gear up for the 2009 governor's race, officials will try to determine whether Democrats' recent successes are a sustained realignment that could alter Virginia politics for a generation.
Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the likely Republican nominee for governor, said he was not worried about Virginia becoming a Democratic state, saying the presidential race was fixated on federal issues, such as the Iraq war and the economy, and a desire for change.
"This was far and away a unique set of circumstances," said McDonnell, who attended a Republican party in a hotel outside Richmond. "Anytime you lose seats, you are concerned. But the dynamics of this race were so unusual. These are a set of circumstances that are not to be repeated. The Virginia electorate is still moderate right of center."
But Scott A. Surovell, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Party, said last night's results spell trouble for a Virginia Republican Party that has lost two successive governor's races, two U.S. Senate seats and control of the state Senate since 2001.
"They have been running on this rural, Southern strategy in Virginia for 20 years, and it is a bankrupt political philosophy," he said.
Obama performed far better in the traditionally conservative state than any recent Democratic presidential candidate. With about 97 percent of the precincts reporting, Obama led by 52 percent to 48 percent.
Four years ago, President Bush won Virginia by eight percentage points, but this year, Obama showed surprising strength in many suburban communities. He received about two-thirds of the vote in Arlington County and Alexandria and nearly 60 percent in Fairfax County, a sign that the state's most populous region might be out of the grasp of Republicans.
Although Bush won Prince William and Loudoun counties four years ago, Obama carried those suburbs comfortably.
Bush carried Chesterfield County in suburban Richmond, a traditionally Republican area, with 64 percent of the vote. McCain carried it yesterday with 54 percent. But another county in suburban Richmond, Henrico, went to Obama, even though Bush easily carried it four years ago.
McCain did slightly better than Bush did in southwestern Virginia, but Obama made gains in rural areas in the eastern part of the state with larger African American populations. Obama also racked up huge margins in many of Virginia's cities, but McCain had the edge in Virginia Beach, where there are large concentrations of active-duty and retired service members.
Many voters across the state endured hours-long lines to vote in the historic presidential race in which the nation was electing either its first black president or its first female vice president.
Nick Longworth, 27, of Herndon, a Republican, said he voted for Obama because McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, is too far to the right and inexperienced.
"If you're going to talk about someone's experience, choosing as a vice presidential candidate someone who has comparable experience to your opponent doesn't seem like a wise decision," said Longworth, a sociology major at Northern Virginia Community College. "Also, being elderly as John McCain is, the chances of Sarah Palin becoming president did not appeal to me. I may be a Republican, but I am not a right-wing Republican."
Steve Goldstein, 58, a self-employed pet sitter from Herndon, said he cast his ballot for Obama for a simple reason: "After the last eight years, is all I can say."
Virginia voters, like those nationwide, had deep apprehension about the economy when they cast their ballots, according to exit polls. Nearly nine out of 10 voters in the state said they are worried about the direction of the nation's economy, and more than half of all voters cited it as the central factor in their vote. Those voters favored Obama, according to exit polls.
African Americans, young voters and those making less than $100,000 a year favored Obama. White men and women and senior citizens favored McCain, according to exit polls. Self-described Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly sided with their respective party's nominee, and independents split their votes between the two candidates.
Obama and McCain fiercely courted Virginia's 13 electoral votes, so the state had a front-row seat to a presidential election for the first time in decades. Both candidates, as well as their surrogates, made repeated visits to the state and flooded the airwaves and mailboxes with advertisements.
Kaine said the Illinois senator decided shortly after the Feb. 12 primary to seriously compete for the traditionally red state.
With the support of large numbers of African American and well-educated voters, Obama racked up a 30-point primary victory over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), one of his largest margins of the primary season.
In May, even before Clinton abandoned her campaign for the Democratic nomination, Obama began quietly deploying staff and field organizers to Virginia.
On June 5, two days after he clinched the nomination, Obama kicked off his general election campaign with stops in southwestern Virginia and Prince William.
His choice of initial campaign stops sent a clear signal that he planned to focus his efforts on voters in rural, conservative communities as well as fast-growing, outer-suburban communities -- both of which typically vote Republican in presidential campaigns.
In July, Obama announced he was opening 20 offices in Virginia, including one in every medium-size city in the state and also a few in sparsely populated regions that have never hosted a presidential campaign office before. Obama would eventually open nearly 50 offices in Virginia.
Obama, along with outside groups, also launched an ambitious effort to register new voters. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 6, the deadline to register, Virginia added nearly a half million voters.
In addition, Obama heavily invested resources in Virginia. After both parties' national nominating conventions ended in early September, Obama released a barrage of TV ads across the state, outspending McCain nearly 4 to 1 on local network ads.
For an interactive map of congressional and presidential race results, visit www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/interactives/campaign08/election/vacounties.html.