Voter Turnout Tough to Call in Va. Governor's Race

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

After millions of dollars, hundreds of barbecues, coffees and fish fries and five debates, this is what the men running for the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia are struggling with a couple of weeks before the primary:

"I saw one knocking on my door," said Kurtis Dowtin, 29, who lives near Tysons Corner Center, where he was shopping on a recent afternoon. "I didn't open. I thought it was Jehovah's Witness."

"Now, what's the guy? Tim Kaine? He's the governor, right?" asked Riadh Mejri, 32, of Springfield, who had the rare experience of personally hearing from one of the candidates when former Alexandria delegate Brian Moran visited his mosque a few weeks ago. Still, Mejri said he is unlikely to vote in the June 9 contest among Moran, Terry McAuliffe and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds.

Predicting turnout for Virginia primaries has always been tricky, but never more so than this year -- the first with a contested party battle for governor in more than three decades, the first to follow a monumental year of politics that got millions of new voters involved, and the first after George W. Bush retired to Texas, taking with him a key motivation for Democratic Party engagement.

Dowtin and Mejri said they followed developments during last year's presidential election closely, sometimes hourly. But both said that after that consuming experience, they were ready to focus on other things.

"You know what it was like?" Mejri asked. "A wedding. After the wedding, it's over. Everybody goes home."

An unprecedented 980,000 Virginians voted in the Democratic presidential primary in February 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the start of a campaign season in which the state emerged as a nationally watched battleground. But there are signs that the excitement of those days has faded.

Several special elections in Virginia since November have been marked by low turnout and, worrisome for Democrats, a strong showing by Republicans in areas thought to be Democratic strongholds.

Nationally, a Senate runoff in Georgia in December, a special congressional election in New York in March and a congressional election in Illinois in April attracted voter turnout not just lower than 2008 presidential numbers, but lower than average for those areas.

"I'd love to believe that what happened in the general election in 2008 would carry forward. But I don't see it," said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. The passion of 2008 was driven largely by anti-Bush sentiment and an outpouring of support for Obama, Gans said.

"The media and the political operatives, I think our assumptions were a little off," said Joe Abbey, Deeds's campaign manager. "We saw what happened last year with Obama and Hillary. It whets the appetite. You get excited about what can happen next year. But I think we're looking at more of a [typical] Virginia turnout."

And a typical Virginia turnout is low. Fewer than 156,000 people came to the polls to give James Webb the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2006, which was about 3.5 percent of the electorate. A similar percentage came out for a contested Democratic lieutenant governor battle in 2005.

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