Frank B. Atkinson -- Virginia's Independents Will Decide Governor's Race

By Frank B. Atkinson
Sunday, September 6, 2009


In Virginia, even the mountains are moderate.

That assessment of my state's gentle geography and centrist politics is as apt today as it was when veteran political journalist Guy Friddell wrote it in 1966, just two years after Virginia broke with tradition and embraced Lyndon Johnson. More than 40 years later, Virginians chose another Democrat for the White House. In Barack Obama, the state's independent-minded voters found a likable leader who embodied change. Some people even suggested that a reliably red state had turned permanently blue.

But Virginia never was red, and it isn't blue now. It has long been purple, perhaps the most politically competitive state in the nation. That's why the fiercest fight in the current governor's race is for the all-important independent voters -- the disproportionately moderate, young, prosperous, suburban and libertarian-leaning people who typically decide Virginia contests.

This year there are some new twists. Instead of the Bush-bashing that steered recent races, there is mounting concern over the ambitious Obama agenda and its impact on a crippled economy. Virginia Republicans' murky message has been replaced by one focused on jobs, with gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell offering a raft of plans on economic development, energy, transportation and workforce training.

After a decade in which the Mark Warner-led Virginia Democrats elected back-to-back governors by playing down the culture wars and focusing on quality-of-life concerns, the man who seeks to succeed them appears headed in the opposite direction. Creigh Deeds's campaign has talked up abortion issues and is suddenly abuzz over a two-decades-old graduate thesis in which McDonnell wrote rather longingly of days when government policy was more friendly to stay-at-home moms and traditional families.

The Deeds camp apparently is betting that polarizing social issues will take suburban voters' minds off the economy. It seems a bit like trying to rekindle the old Prohibition battle in the middle of the Great Depression, but who knows? At least it may bring some Democrats back into his fold.

The constant amid all this change is partisans' resort to negative caricatures that are as preposterous to people who know both men as they are insulting to voters' intelligence. Deeds is not some gun-toting country bumpkin who cannot string together a sensible sentence, much less run a coherent campaign and a complicated commonwealth. McDonnell is not some Bible-thumping preacher who cleverly disguised himself as a bipartisan problem-solver for 20 years, waiting for the chance to spring from the inaugural platform and round up all the women for long-neglected household chores.

McDonnell's academic exploits aren't going to decide the governor's race. Neither is affection or disdain for Obama. Virginia's reliably contrarian voters are. And with power now resting in the hands of one party, they're seeing red.

The modern era of Virginia politics began in the partisan tumult and rapid realignment of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The one-party regime dominated by Southern Democrats collapsed, and in its place emerged one of the nation's most dynamic and unpredictable political systems.

Since then, the two Virginia parties have taken a roller-coaster ride: Republicans dominated statewide elections throughout the 1970s and again in the 1990s; Democrats won all the big contests in the 1980s and in the current decade.

Of the 10 most recent governors, five were Democrats and five were Republicans. But Virginia's purple hue is only part of the picture. The state is not only competitive but contrarian. The party in the White House has not won the Virginia governorship since the dawn of serious two-party competition in the early 1970s.

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