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What Is Blue in '08, Red in '09? Ask Virginia.

By Frank B. Atkinson
Sunday, September 6, 2009

RICHMOND

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 Virginia Republicans' murky message has been replaced by one focused on jobs, with gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell offering a raft of plans on economic development, energy, transportation and workforce training.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.

A case in point is the 1993 governor's race, with its parallels to today's. That year, a new Democratic president was inaugurated, misread his mandate, faltered on health care and other causes dear to his party's base and quickly became a drag on Virginia's Democratic candidate for governor. Despite a million-dollar funding advantage and a 27-point lead in the polls on the day Bill Clinton was inaugurated, Democrat Mary Sue Terry went on to lose to Republican upstart George Allen 10 months later by the largest margin in modern Virginia gubernatorial history.

Allen's victory and appealing reform agenda reset the state's course, ending a decade of Democratic statewide wins and ushering in a period of Republican victories while Clinton was in the White House.

It was not the first or last abrupt reversal in Virginia politics.

After Ronald Reagan's landslide win in 1980, the reassuring Chuck Robb seized the political center, thwarted the Virginia GOP's bid for a fourth consecutive gubernatorial victory and put his party on a roll during the 1980s. At the end of that Democratic decade, Doug Wilder captured the suburban swing vote and a place in history as the nation's first African American elected governor.

The most recent watershed victory -- akin to Robb's in 1981 and Allen's in 1993 -- belonged to Democrat Mark Warner in 2001. Winning the governorship in the shadow of the 2001 terrorist attacks, with President George W. Bush's popularity soaring, Warner deemphasized cultural issues and other standard differences between the parties. He planted his flag in the "sensible center," providing a useful contrast with the bitter polarization and serial spectacles beamed nightly from Republican Washington.

What drove four decades of partisan reversals that were directly opposite the changes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? The independents. And they hold the key to what will happen this fall.

Self-described independents make up at least a third of the electorate, sometimes more, though the substantial presence of Republican and Democratic leaners in their ranks means the number of true swing voters is smaller. All profess to "vote for the person, not the party" and thus have to be persuaded in every contest. The candidate who succeeds in that task almost always wins.

Although each party courts independents assiduously, their influence is hardly cause for celebration among partisans in either camp. I am an active Republican for a reason -- my political principles and policy views coincide fairly reliably with those of GOP candidates. That is why I participate informally in some Republican campaigns, including McDonnell's. Like the political activists on both sides whom I work with every day, I believe in the two-party system. Despite their flaws, political parties are valuable vehicles for advancing important ideas.

Independent voters pay some attention to party labels, but they dislike partisan preoccupations and bickering. In Virginia, independents are especially wary of the concentration of political power. Heirs to the Madisonian tradition of checks and balances, they regard divided government as a virtue because it guards against excess.

Today, those independents see one clearly dominant party in Washington pursuing an aggressive agenda in areas from health care and energy to labor and economic policy. Centrist, cautious and libertarian-leaning, these swing voters find ample cause for worry in national leadership that seems left-of-center and bent on bigger government. They also don't care much for the current tone, which bears little resemblance to the conciliatory talk that made Obama so appealing to them last fall.

These factors have combined to make the president -- or more accurately, his agenda and his party's dominance at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- a definite drag on the Deeds campaign.

This effect was captured quite well by an explanation that a Washington Post poll respondent gave last month: "I am what I think of as a very centrist moderate, but because the White House and both sides of Congress are controlled by Democrats, I'll do anything to make sure there's a better balance of power."

The comment goes a long way toward explaining some of the survey's rather striking numbers. Republican McDonnell leads Deeds by a whopping 18 percentage points among independent voters, according to the survey. Among those same voters, Obama's endorsement was a net negative: 37 percent of independents said his endorsement would make them less likely to vote for Deeds, while 23 percent said it would make them more likely to do so.

Most Virginia independents voted Democratic in 2008 -- and in several preceding elections in the state -- mainly because of their exasperation with the national Republicans' spending spree, prolonged wars and ethical lapses. They did not think they were endorsing a massive increase in federal spending and debt and an unprecedented expansion of government control over the economy.

Closer to home, Democrats control the Virginia governorship and both U.S. Senate seats, creating the appearance of a one-party monopoly that extends down I-95 to Richmond. Gov. Tim Kaine initially resisted Obama's entreaties to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, but his presence in that role now provides voters with an almost daily reminder that "Virginia Democrats" and "national Democrats" are one and the same.

Even with independents leaning toward McDonnell, the gubernatorial contest is bound to get closer. If Virginia elections were football games, most of the action would be between the 47-yard lines. Independents tend to tune in late in these contests. And unlike in many states, no one has a strong home field advantage here: Roughly the same percentage of Virginia voters say the state is on the right track as say it is headed the wrong way.

Political eyes again are trained on Virginia -- dynamic, competitive and frequently a harbinger of things to come elsewhere. Obama's victory in the state last year showed that streaks -- even long ones -- are made to be broken. So this could be the year when the party in the White House finally breaks through and wins the Virginia governorship.

But don't put a lot of money on it.

There is something akin to Newton's law of physics at work in these odd-year Virginia governors' races. And the harder Obama pushes for his sweeping agenda in one-party Washington, the more pronounced the equal and opposite reaction among the state's independents is likely to be.

Frank B. Atkinson, a Richmond lawyer, has written two books on Virginia politics. He served in the Reagan administration and worked for former governor George Allen.

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