By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009 7:11 PM
Polls have closed across Virginia in a volatile Democratic primary that was buffeted for much of the day by severe weather that election officials said supressed turnout even more than expected.
Lines of thunderstorms drifting across the state in the morning and afternoon added to the unpredictability of a wide-open gubernatorial race in which three candidates have battled relentlessly on television and radio, in print and in telephoned appeals over who was best suited to create jobs, protect the environment and expand access to health care.
Candidates for the top spot on the Democratic ticket are state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, former Alexandria delegate Brian Moran and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. Whoever wins the primary will face Republican Robert F. McDonnell in the general election.
Campaign workers and outside observers have said for weeks that a key to this primary is mobilizing reliable voters rather than drawing those who are not used to casting ballots in preliminary races. But that was hard to do today, as soaking rain, hail, thunder and lightning caused scattered power outages and led the National Weather Service twice to urge people to stay indoors.
Turnout was as low as 2 percent of registered voters in some communities at 4 p.m., local election officials reported. In Prince William County, just 3,757 had cast ballots out of 222,000 registered voters.
"It's very, very slow," said Vicki Lewis, the registrar of Newport News in Hampton Roads.
Turnout was higher in Northern Virginia, particularly Arlington and Alexandria, considered friendly territory for Moran, and in Bath County on the West Virginia line, where Deeds lives.
The candidates have been battling for attention on the airwaves and by mail in the weeks leading up to today's contest, the first competitive gubernatorial primary in Virginia in decades. Their challenge has been daunting: to reach voters likely to vote in a Democratic primary, and to distinguish themselves in a field of candidates with more similarities on the issues than differences.
Voters offered a variety of reasons for their selections, basing their choices on such factors as who they thought would fix the economy and who they thought had a better shot against McDonnell in the fall. All three Democrats support gay marriage, but only Moran has pledged to fight to repeal Virginia's ban. All three support exploring alternative energy sources such as wind. All three promise to find more money to solve Northern Virginia's traffic crunch.
Oswald Cumberbatch, 56, of Chantilly, said he voted for McAuliffe on both counts.
"He's a business man, and I think he has a pretty good chance of helping the economy," said Cumberbatch, a father of six from Trinidad and a cook in a corporate cafeteria in Ashburn. "And I wish him the best of luck, because we don't want the Republicans back in there."
Wendy Moniz, 44, of the Del Ray section of Alexandria, said she voted for Moran because he is a "local guy," and she thinks his values align with those of Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine.
"I felt like he best represents my interests," Moniz said. "I like where he stands on same-sex marriage, transportation."
While most polling places were deserted, Deeds' voting station in Bath County carried the mood of a high school reunion, or maybe a church social, as a steady trickle of voters arrived to cast ballots -- nearly all of them for their hometown candidate.
"We're all pulling for Creigh," said poll chief Sharon Sherrard, who had brought fruit salad and homemade "breakfast cookies" for voters.
Voters are also choosing a Democratic nominee to face Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) in the fall. Jody Wagner, a former secretary of finance from Virginia Beach, is running against Michael Signer, a campaign strategist and national security expert from Arlington County. Today's election will also determine the Democratic nominees for 12 House of Delegates races, including four in Northern Virginia -- two in Fairfax and one each in Arlington and Prince William counties. The parties are preparing for a November fight over control of the chamber.
With surveys showing remarkable volatility in the race's final days, all three campaigns have agreed that victory will be less about soaring oratory and big ideas and more about which candidate's supporters are energized enough to visit the polls. Voters do not register by party in Virginia, so Democrats, Republicans and independents can all participate.
"There are enough voters out there for any one of them to win. The secret is finding them and motivating them to go vote," said C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, who has not endorsed any candidate.
The Democratic Party, once an outgunned minority in Virginia, has seen a dramatic return to power the past decade as voters embraced a succession of pragmatic moderates. This is the first contested Democratic primary for governor in more than 30 years, however, and it could provide a window into the mind-set of Democratic voters.
All three candidates and their organizations have mobilized armies of volunteers to knock on doors, organize rides to the polls, staff precincts and call likely voters.
"Virginia primaries in June are notoriously low turnout affairs. People are thinking about graduations, weddings, almost anything other than politics," said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at George Mason University who has been watching the race closely.
When it comes to which geographic areas will prove key in this three-way race, or which voter demographic -- young people, for instance, or the African Americans who turned out in force in Virginia to secure the state for Obama -- no one knows. There has been no Democratic primary in the Virginia governor's race in more than 30 years. And Virginia has changed a lot since then.
"Because there's no track record, we don't know what the norm is. That's one of the reasons why the campaigns are working so hard up to the last minute," Farnsworth said.
The storms caused only minor glitches for voters, cutting power at four polling places across the state but not affecting voting, state election officials said. However, two voting locations were locked down for 45 minutes in Virginia Beach following reports that a gunman was in the area. No injuries were reported.
Nancy Rodrigues, secretary of the State Board of Elections, said the turnout might be lower because of the sheer number of elections that Virginia has had recently, including several local races in Northern Virginia. Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states that hold elections every year. "Whether there is some voter fatigue," she said, "that remains to be seen."
Indeed, several polling places in central Fairfax County felt like ghost towns this morning. At Cedar Lane Elementary School in Vienna, only eight people had voted by 6:40 a.m. Volunteers for candidates there joked that election officials might be able to count votes on their fingers and toes if the early morning pace held. At the Vienna community center on Cherry Street, volunteers paced quietly in the parking lot, waiting for voters.
One of the few to come was Teri Goldsmith, 41, who said she was voting in her first Virginia election -- she moved from Colorado last fall. A schoolteacher who has volunteered over the years for national party candidates, she said she voted for McAuliffe because of his "professionalism. He knows how to run, he knows how to win. And he gets it. He knows people are struggling and he's talking about creating jobs. He talking about things that everyone is worried about."
In the 35th House district race, where Del. Steve Shannon is stepping down to run for attorney general, Goldsmith said she voted for Mark Keam, who is seeking to become the House's first Asian American delegate. She said she was impressed by Keam's background working on Capitol Hill.
Tom Winston, 44, said he voted for Moran because of what he called experience. "All three of these guys know their stuff. They are all good Democrats," said Winston, who is on disability after what he said was a work-related accident five years ago. "But Brian's my guy. He's paid his dues. And he knows how all this system works. We need that to keep the party strong."
In Woodbridge, Kevin Evans said he never considered skipping the polls. As an African American, he said, he takes pride in exercising this basic right, denied to generations of his ancestors. Evans was thrilled to be able to cast a ballot for Luke Torian, who is vying to represent the 52nd district in the House of Delegates.
"He's my pastor, and I look at him every Sunday," said Evans, 49, who attends First Mount Zion Baptist Church and votes at Rippon Middle School. "He prays on everything, so with God behind you . . . who can be against you?"
Another Torian supporter, Bruce Smith, was planning to distribute campaign literature outside the middle school but changed course as the storm worsened. "I'd stand in the rain but not out in this lightning," Smith said after ducking for cover. "The rain might impact the day. . . . It gives people a real good reason to stay inside."
Washington Post staff writers Jennifer Buske, Rosalind S. Helderman, Christopher L. Jenkins, Sandhya Somashekhar, Michael Alison Chandler, Fredrick Kunkle, Mark Berman and Anita Kumar contributed to this report.