McDonnell handily sweeps Virginia GOP back to power

Virginians went to the polls Tuesday for an off-year election with races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the state House of Delegates, and they handed the Republicans their first governor's race win since 1997 and first House gains since 2001.
By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Virginians elected Republican Robert F. McDonnell the commonwealth's 71st governor Tuesday, sweeping the GOP to power and emphatically halting a decade of Democratic advances in the critical swing state.

The exclamation point on the former state attorney general's trouncing of Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds was a victory in Fairfax County, the state's most populous jurisdiction, which had delivered powerful Democratic majorities to President Obama and Govs. Timothy M. Kaine and Mark Warner. McDonnell also reversed the political order in the Washington region's outer suburbs, winning Loudoun and Prince William counties, which went for Kaine four years ago.

Boosted by a political mood shift that has left many voters cool to Democrats, McDonnell, 55, prevailed with a promise to create jobs in the down economy and fix the state's clogged roads without a tax increase. His campaign avoided the hot-button social issues that in recent elections had alienated voters in Northern Virginia and other urban centers. And he benefited from a lackluster Democratic opponent whom voters came to know in good part from a video clip in which he waffled and stammered when asked if he would raise taxes.

As Republicans swept all statewide offices for the first time in 12 years, joyful activists tossed beach balls at a Richmond hotel as party leaders pronounced a new era of low taxes. "We're back," said former Fairfax County congressman Tom Davis. "The state has moved back toward the center."

Republicans expanded their majority in the House of Delegates by at least four seats. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling easily won reelection, and Fairfax Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II, one of the most socially conservative members of the Richmond legislature, will be the next attorney general.

McDonnell dominated among independent voters, while Deeds, 51, failed to re-create the coalition that last year helped Barack Obama become the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture Virginia in more than four decades. With turnout in a governor's race slumping below 40 percent for the first time in at least 40 years, Deeds fell well short of the margins Obama, Kaine and Warner amassed among black voters, young people and Northern Virginians. McDonnell won by a particularly wide margin in rural areas, which the Democrat had labeled "Deeds Country," hoping to outperform his Democratic predecessors from his base in the Shenandoah Valley's Bath County.

In the campaign's final days, Deeds made an explicit appeal to Obama voters that a vote for him was a vote in support of the president. But earlier, he had distanced himself from Obama's agenda, especially on health and energy policy.

Inheriting many problems

The three Republicans inherit a government burdened by a severe budget crisis and a transportation network so underfunded that Virginia will soon lack the matching funds necessary to secure U.S. dollars for road construction. For Republicans to build beyond Tuesday's improved showing in Northern Virginia, McDonnell will have to prove that unlike past GOP administrations, he will deliver more resources to Virginia's most populous and affluent region.

At the Richmond Marriott, Republicans who have spent years watching Democrats win election after election roared with excitement as media outlets called the race for McDonnell about 8 p.m. "My promise to you as governor," McDonnell said, "is to strengthen the free-enterprise system, to create more jobs and opportunity so that every Virginian can use their God-given talents to pursue the American dream and liberty here in this great commonwealth."

The magnitude of the GOP sweep had many party leaders recalling the 1993 vote, which also followed the election of a Democratic president. That year, George Allen was elected governor, the leading edge of the Republican revolution that culminated in the party regaining control of Congress a year later. Republicans said Tuesday's wins restored Virginia to its natural political condition, arguing that recent Democratic victories reflectedwidespread anger at former President George W. Bush and the personal popularity of Obama and Warner.

"It's a Republican state. It has been, is now and will be," said Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Democrats blamed their loss on the natural swing of the political pendulum and said demographic changes will help the party's fortunes over time. "I've been around a long time, and I know that there are cycles in politics like there are in anything in life," said Democratic Party Chairman Richard Cranwell.

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