Va. GOP makes timely changes
McDonnell looks to end string of Democratic victories

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Sunday, October 25, 2009

In the 12 years since James S. Gilmore III last claimed the governor's mansion for Republicans, Virginia has undergone dramatic demographic changes, becoming more populous, diverse, wealthy and educated. There are almost a million more Virginians; six in 10 are minorities, and 43 percent live in Northern Virginia

Democrats have taken advantage of these changes to claim nearly every major office in the state, but their decade-long run is in jeopardy this year as Republican Robert F. McDonnell appears to be making inroads among suburbanites and minorities through concerted outreach, a message built around quality-of-life issues and a direct embrace of Northern Virginia.

McDonnell's approach has been apparent throughout the race. He officially launched his campaign with a rally in Annandale, has returned to Northern Virginia repeatedly to target specific minority groups and has used the region as a backdrop for many major policy announcements.

The day before news of McDonnell's 1989 graduate thesis broke, as he and his aides scrambled to respond, he spent 12 hours in Northern Virginia opening campaign offices, canvassing in cul-de-sacs and meeting with Vietnamese and Latino voters. Two days after the story appeared, as McDonnell sought to limit damage from a paper in which he argued that working women are detrimental to the family, he went to a high school in Alexandria to announce his education plan.

Equally evident is what McDonnell has avoided: rhetoric that ignites the conservative base but could turn off independent voters. He has been careful to intermingle praise for President Obama's education policies with criticism of his spending and health-care initiatives. He pronounced himself "delighted" that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, separating himself from those in his party who were ridiculing the president. And after personally asking former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for help early in the summer, he changed his mind in August and asked the controversial conservative to stay away.

McDonnell campaign strategists said they don't expect to win Northern Virginia or a majority of minority votes, but they don't think they need to. In a state that remains Republican in most places, they said their goal is to keep Democrat R. Creigh Deeds from getting more than 60 percent of the vote in Northern Virginia -- the magic number strategists in both parties have come to see as a threshold for Democratic victories. In a Washington Post poll conducted this month, McDonnell trailed Deeds by just 5 points in Northern Virginia, 51 to 46 percent.

"Successful Republican candidates must be able to compete in Northern Virginia," said Phil Cox, McDonnell's campaign manager. "The old model where you could run up big numbers south of the Occoquan and hope for the best in Northern Virginia is a thing of the past."

The changes in Virginia have mirrored shifts that have occurred nationally, helping Democrats win elections by appealing to increasingly diverse, moderate, well-educated and affluent suburban voters outside such cities as Philadelphia, Denver and Minneapolis. On his way to winning the White House, Obama tapped into those shifts in Virginia and other states that previously tended to be unfriendly to Democrats.

National Republicans think a victory by McDonnell, who has led in every poll since June, would resonate well beyond Virginia because it would show that although many new, suburban voters have backed Democrats in recent elections, they're not wedded to the party.

"I think a win in Virginia will be a shot heard around the world and will show a strong comeback in the making," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who added that a McDonnell victory would create a "template for Republicans on a national level."

Strategy alone has not thrust McDonnell into the lead in the polls. He has benefited from general discontent about Obama and the direction of the country. Virginia Republicans are desperate for a win and solidly behind him. And he enjoys a big money advantage that has allowed him and his supporters to dominate the airwaves during the final weeks of the campaign.

History is also on McDonnell's side. In every gubernatorial election since 1977, Virginians have elected the party out of power in the White House.

McDonnell has further benefited by running against an opponent who doesn't come from Northern Virginia and hasn't followed the same strategy as other Democrats. A native of rural western Virginia, Deeds has made a point of campaigning in what he terms "Deeds Country": Shenandoah Valley communities and towns near the North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky borders, where Democratic votes can be hard to come by. Deeds returned to that part of the state Saturday, with stops in Roanoke, Blacksburg and elsewhere.

Deeds has been the candidate more concerned with social policy. He has worked to paint McDonnell as an extremist, first over the Republican's opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest and then with an ad campaign built around the Republican's thesis.

Unlike many of his Republican predecessors, McDonnell has not sought a debate over social issues, despite his focus on them during his legislative career.

The Deeds campaign is also trying to reach out to suburbanites and minorities, with a concerted push in the final two weeks of the race. Deeds spent last Sunday at a number of African American churches in Richmond and plans to hit at least 10 this Sunday, and campaign supporters are targeting the young, minority and suburban voters across the state who backed Obama in last year's presidential election.

They think that Virginia's changes present a huge pool of new voters inclined to back Democrats, if they can be persuaded to vote. They note that Republican John McCain actually received more votes last year than George W. Bush did when he won the state four years earlier. But his gain was swamped by 500,000 new votes for Obama.

"The math is definitely there," Deeds said. "The voters are identified. It's just a matter of motivating them to get out."

Republicans are showing signs of adjusting to the reality of a changed state. In past elections, they have held an Ethnic Unity Rally in Fairfax County targeted to a slew of groups. But this year, they ditched the old focus and name -- not wishing to appear condescending and out-of-touch by lumping minorities together as "ethnic" groups -- and instead held a rally for Hispanic voters. McDonnell headlined the event this month, which drew more than 150 people.

Democrats question whether McDonnell can erase a historical stain on the Republican brand in minority communities, made worse in Virginia in recent years with then-Sen. George Allen's use of what many considered a racial slur in his 2006 campaign and the party's harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration.

But McDonnell has barely mentioned immigration this year, instead choosing to try to make inroads with communities Republicans have struggled to attract. He has organized six coalitions dedicated to Asian Americans, who have campaign signs written in Korean, Vietnamese and other languages. He has also attended 60 events geared to Asian American communities.

To woo Hispanics, McDonnell has run ads in Spanish-language newspapers and encouraged Hispanic businesses to post signs in their windows. He has ads on African American radio in which he talks positively about Obama, former Democratic governor L. Douglas Wilder and businesswoman Sheila Johnson.

McDonnell has also made a point of appealing to Northern Virginia's business community, presenting himself as a can-do executive who speaks the language of the state's increasingly high-tech business base.

That sort of pitch would not have been as necessary a dozen years ago, when a list of the state's top private employers included a number of fast-food chains and convenience stores, such as Pizza Hut, 7-Eleven and Hardee's. Today, those names have been replaced by some of the nation's top government contractors: Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin and Science Applications International Corp., which announced last month that it is moving its corporate headquarters and 1,200 new high-paying jobs to Tysons Corner.

"Virginia's been a big winner in the technology boom, and it's attracted highly educated people from all over the world," said Richmond lawyer Frank Atkinson, author of two books on Virginia politics and an adviser to McDonnell and other Republicans. The result, he said, has been an increase in independent suburbanites. "It's a mistake to assume that voting patterns are static. What really goes on in Virginia is that party fortunes tend to ebb and flow based on issues, and that drives the outcome of statewide races."

Staff researcher Meg Smith and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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