By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009
At the beginning of the year, after the Republicans' worst losses in Virginia in a generation, members of both parties wondered whether the once-conservative Southern state had officially turned blue.
Democrats, who had picked up three U.S. House seats, a second U.S. Senate seat and Virginia's 13 presidential electoral votes for the first time in 44 years, were all but certain their successes would continue.
No one could have imagined just where Republicans would be as they head into the final three weeks of the 2009 campaign.
The once-beleaguered party is in a position to sweep all three statewide races and maintain its majority in the House of Delegates -- maybe even pick up a seat or two.
"Last year, people were writing the obituary for the Republican Party of Virginia," said Jerry W. Kilgore, former attorney general and the GOP nominee for governor in 2005. "Now, good fortunes are coming our way."
Virtually every poll since the general election campaign began in June has shown Republican Robert F. McDonnell leading Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in the race for Virginia governor -- some by double digits.
A Washington Post poll released last week showed likely voters favored McDonnell over Deeds by 53 to 44 percent, and they told pollsters they think that the Republican would better handle almost every major issue facing Virginians, including transportation, taxes, education, the state budget and the economy.
Republicans Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli II each held identical 49 to 40 percent leads over Democrats Jody Wagner and Stephen C. Shannon for lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively. Fifty-one percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Bolling (compared with 45 percent for Wagner) and Cuccinelli (compared with 41 percent for Shannon).
Identical leads and favorable ratings for the Republican lieutenant governor and attorney general hopefuls indicate that likely voters might be supporting a party, and not necessarily the person, in the two races where candidates struggle to garner attention.
"I'm looking for lower taxes, certainly. And I'm really not happy with the way deficit spending is going," said Bob Dapper, 53, an engineer from Blacksburg who participated in the poll. "There's no way I'd vote for a Democrat in this state this year."
Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said he still thinks Democrats can win the statewide races and pick up three to four seats in the House because Virginians who voted for President Obama last year will eventually rally around the Democrats and because his party has a better get-out-the vote effort.
"I would say [Republicans] are energized because they're at the precipice of a cliff," he said. "The next step is to fall."
This year, Republicans have benefited from discontent about the direction of the country and the state, which are being run by a Democratic president, Congress and governor. (The poll showed Obama and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine with respectable approval ratings of 58 and 60 percent, respectively, although U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi garnered a low 38 percent approval.)
Fred Muhlenberg, 46, a software engineer from Vienna, said he is leaning toward voting for McDonnell partly because he is concerned about the health-care discussion in Washington as well as federal spending on bailouts for large companies that he thinks should have been allowed to fail.
"It's an opportunity to vote for the candidate I think would be best in line with my vision and thinking, which in turn would send a moderating message to the federal level that says, 'Hey, you need to move back to the center a little bit and stop trying to redefine the entire world. Maybe you should do things a little more incrementally,' " Muhlenberg said.
McDonnell picked up the support of 59 percent of independents and 13 percent of those who voted for Obama last year.
Matthew Velin, 23, of Herndon voted for Obama last year but is leaning toward voting for McDonnell this year. "I feel like he's more of a Northern Virginia kind of guy than Deeds, and he'll do more to try to keep money here," Velin said. "Really, transportation is the main issue here, and I think he can do a better job of that."
But the potential Republican resurgence is not just about Washington woes.
Republicans are so hungry for a win after years of losses that they have put aside their ideological differences and warring factions to get behind the ticket.
Through the winter and spring, the party suffered from two major splits: between conservatives and moderates, and between supporters of ousted party chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick and those looking for a new leader. The internal feuds appear all but forgotten these days.
Some Republicans initially considered McDonnell too conservative, and others said he had moderated himself too much as he ran for statewide office. Now both groups appear to be behind him.
Deeds managed to cut into McDonnell's advantage by attacking him on abortion and other issues, but that only seemed to embolden Republicans, who had long expected the Democrat to attack the Republican on his views on social issues and his ties to Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
The Post poll shows that 35 percent of those who favor McDonnell are very enthusiastic, while only 20 percent of Deeds's supporters feel the same way.
Michael Giere, a Republican activist from Falls Church, said the party is diverse and is always going to have ideological tensions.
"That's never going to go away," he said. "But nothing brings stability like the prospect of winning."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.