Independents flocking to Republican in race for Va. governor

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009; 7:25 PM

If Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell wins Tuesday, it will almost certainly be with the help of legions of independent voters whose support of Virginia Democrats in recent elections has been integral to their success.

For years, Republicans were able to win in Virginia by driving up turnout within their base. But as their proportion of the electorate has dwindled, many in the party have said changing times demand that they adopt a more centrist message to appeal to voters outside the party. McDonnell has heeded that advice, making himself attractive to independents such as David Grimes, 43, a teacher from Fairfax County who supports abortion rights and backed Democrat Timothy M. Kaine for governor four years ago.

"There are some things that I disagree with him over," Grimes said of McDonnell, who is against abortion, including in cases of rape and incest. "But I'm always an advocate for some balance in government, and right now it seems like it's totally unbalanced in a way that isn't good for this country."

Sixty-one percent of self-described independents in a recent Washington Post poll of likely voters responded that they will cast their ballots for McDonnell, helping him secure a comfortable 11-point advantage over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds. Those unaffiliated voters make up more than one-third of McDonnell's supporters, and in Northern Virginia such voters have responded well to his message about taxes, jobs and the economy.

Grimes is in good company. Nearly 1 in 4 Kaine backers in the poll support McDonnell, and the Republican is also benefiting from their largesse. As of Oct. 27, McDonnell had attracted nearly $500,000 from 87 individuals and organizations who had previously donated to Kaine, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign financing. Among those donors is Sheila Johnson, a Northern Virginia businesswoman who was one of Kaine's biggest backers but whose support for McDonnell led her to appear in one of his TV ads.

Some of those who have switched their allegiance say McDonnell has done a better job of talking about the pragmatic issues that also propelled Kaine -- transportation, education and the environment. But they also say his vow not to raise taxes particularly resonates amid economic uncertainty.

"The last governor's race, the state was flush with cash, things were going great, the economy was zooming, houses were popping out of the ground, home values were through the roof," said Purcellville Mayor Robert W. Lazaro Jr., a Republican and McDonnell supporter who also approves of Kaine. "Now it's a totally different economic picture, and the state is being challenged differently. We have to consider how to do business differently."

Deeds has almost given up on independents, spending the final days of the campaign courting complacent or tuned-out Democrats who might be persuaded to come to the polls Tuesday. It is a luxury his party has acquired as the state has become younger and more diverse, especially in Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia, but Deeds has failed to energize the Democratic base that turned out in droves last fall to elect President Obama.

McDonnell has also managed to woo back some Republicans who were turned off by the party over the past eight years. Moderate and liberal Republicans are more apt to back McDonnell than the Republicans who ran for governor in 2001 or 2005, according to Post polls.

Jerome Daly, 73, a retired Army officer turned businessman from Lorton, leans Republican in that he opposes abortion and supports low taxes. He said he identified as a Republican in the past, inspired by the presidency of Ronald Reagan. But he came to believe his party had forsaken its fiscally conservative roots over the past decade and became open to voting for Democrats, which he did for governor in 2001 and 2005.

McDonnell's "background and his performances have been good and level. I don't think he's a starry-eyed idealist," Daly said. "His plans are pretty smart and solid."

Researcher Meg Smith and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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