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Topic A: Will State or National Issues Loom Larger in Virginia's Election?

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Post asked observers of Virginia politics whether state or national issues will loom larger in the governor's race. Below are contributions from Margaret Edds, Thomas M. Davis, Larry J. Sabato, Bob Holsworth, David Snyder, Phyllis Randall, Corey A. Stewart.

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MARGARET EDDS

Former editorial writer and columnist for the Virginian-Pilot

No matter how the gubernatorial election turns out, it's sure to be interpreted outside Virginia as a referendum on Barack Obama. In truth, the results will say much more about the assets and foibles of Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat Creigh Deeds, the legacies of recent governors and General Assembly sessions, the unemployment rate in Martinsville and gridlock on Lee Highway.

When Democrat Mark Warner won the 2001 governor's race by five percentage points just one year after George W. Bush took the White House, it wasn't because Virginians had suddenly soured on the president -- who had carried the state by eight percentage points. It was because voters were worried about state finances and because they viewed Warner as the more competent, centrist alternative.

This year, economic hard times top voter concerns, both inside and outside Virginia. But the electorate will cast judgment more on solutions offered by Deeds and McDonnell than on Washington stimulus plans and bailouts.

The common denominator in recent Virginia elections is that voters have elevated competence and reasonableness over ideology and labels. Much punditry to the contrary, that will be the test in 2009 as well.

THOMAS M. DAVIS

Former U.S. representative (R-Va.); president, Republican Main Street Partnership

The race will be largely determined by national atmospherics. The last eight gubernatorial elections have been won by the opposite party of the sitting president. Virginia voters have used the election to send a message to Washington.

For eight years, George W. Bush was Democrats' energy source. From Bush v. Gore through Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and the economic meltdown, loathing of Bush drove Democratic turnout. Republicans were on the defensive, and Democrats made gains at the state and national levels.

Deeds tying himself to Obama, polarizing the abortion issue and attempting to run against Bush is a strategic misread and a formula for defeat. His troubles are multiplied by the state's economic downturn and Gov. Tim Kaine's disappointing part-time tenure, leaving few state accomplishments to run on.

Obama's coalition was driven by his charisma and a large anti-Bush wave against John McCain. A GOP resurgence, if it occurs, should be interpreted not as an embrace of Republicans but as a message to Democrats that maybe voters are not comfortable with what they're seeing in Washington.

LARRY J. SABATO

Director, University of Virginia's Center for Politics

A contest for governor ought to be decided on state issues. You'd think that education, transportation and taxes would be enough for voters to chew on.

But more often than not, the tiebreaker in a Virginia election for governor is national politics. The odd positioning of the state's gubernatorial race in the year immediately after a presidential election means it becomes a test of national party strength and the popularity of the incumbent president. Pundits and the media ceaselessly interpret the race on those terms, and voters begin to see their choice as less about the course of Virginia for the next four years and more as an opportunity to send a message to the White House.

This is especially true for voters whose anger has been stoked by actions of the new administration. It is no accident that the results of every gubernatorial election in Virginia since 1977 (and since 1989 in New Jersey, the other state with this election schedule) have been predicted by one simple variable -- the party label of the president. The opposite party has won the statehouse every time.

One Election Day, no doubt, the presidential jinx will be broken. Deeds prays for now, McDonnell a later year.

BOB HOLSWORTH

Founder and president, VirginiaTomorrow.com

Will state or national issues decide this race? I hate to sound like a weasel, but the answer is "both."

The altered national landscape gives the GOP a good shot at ending a disheartening string of defeats. A sluggish economy, Obama's declining poll numbers and anxiety about federal spending, health-care reform and carbon cap-and-trade policies have lifted Republican hopes. An added complication for Democrats is that Gov. Tim Kaine's second job as head of the Democratic National Committee obligates him to personally defend the Democrats' national agenda.

McDonnell has capitalized on this, asking Deeds to take positions on health-care reform, union "card check" organizing and cap-and-trade. But the choice for governor is also very personal and local. Voters won't be casting a ballot on Obama.

No one's in the mood for glitz. Virginians will vote for a solid leader who can help the state weather the economic storm. Who's going to maintain school quality? Who can help bring back jobs to hard-hit areas? Who can unclog some roads in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads? And who's going to keep taxes and spending at reasonable levels?

Neither McDonnell nor Deeds has begun to close the deal on these questions.

DAVID SNYDER

Member, National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board; Falls Church council member

Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Whenever our affairs go obviously wrong, the good sense of the people will interpose and set them to rights."

The transportation situation in Northern Virginia has gone obviously, even dangerously, wrong. Each traveler loses 62 hours and hundreds of dollars annually to traffic congestion, according to the July 2009 report of the Texas Transportation Institute. And there are far more tragic costs -- witness the recent transit fatalities and serious crashes caused by aggressive or texting drivers fed up with gridlock. To solve the crisis, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority estimates it will take an additional $700 million annually for the needed highways and transit capacity and better operations to maximize our current infrastructure. But state and federal funding is inadequate, unreliable and declining, and too much of Northern Virginia's taxes are siphoned off to other parts of the state.

To use Jefferson's phrase, the people of Northern Virginia will "interpose" themselves in this gubernatorial election by rewarding the candidate who honestly analyzes the transportation problem, proposes a solution and demonstrates the political will to implement it.

PHYLLIS RANDALL

Loudoun County Democratic activist

Issues such as transportation, the economy and education should be the focus. But it is almost inevitable that the race will become a mini-referendum on the president and his policies.

President Obama wasted no time tackling the myriad problems he inherited. In just seven months, his bold agenda has won him high praise and deep criticism. But with all the "noise" from our nation's capital, Deeds and McDonnell are having a tough time getting "off-year voters" to take note of the looming election.

It is regrettable that many voters don't realize their state and local elections can be more important than the presidential election. I sincerely hope that all those 2008 Obama voters will re-engage.

COREY A. STEWART

Chairman (R-at Large), Prince William Board of County Supervisors

By our nature, we Virginians -- Republicans, Democrats and independents alike -- tend to be a conservative lot: low-tax, pro-business and limited government. That is why the most successful Democrats in Virginia, e.g. Mark Warner, brand themselves as "conservative" or "moderate."

Virginians understand that rapid increases in government spending and borrowing today mean inflation, tax increases and dampened economic growth tomorrow. That's a problem for Creigh Deeds. As Washington Democrats push for increased government influence and spending in everything from health care to the automotive industry, Virginians react with concern. Because it is his party, Creigh Deeds gets painted by the same brush.

To prevent this, Deeds will need to divorce himself from the Democrats nationally. He will need to make clear that he does not support massive increases in federal spending and influence. On the state level, he will need to reject tax increases and embrace the conservative solution to Virginia's transportation problem: reducing spending in other areas to make room for more transportation investment.

Deeds will probably not take this approach, since he would lose some of his base by doing so. Independent and conservative-minded Virginian accordingly will reject Deeds as they equate him with the actions of his party on the national level.


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