Strategy proves critical in quest for suburban votes

By Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Robert F. McDonnell's stunning victory in Northern Virginia proves that Republicans can win in the region by doing exactly what Democrats have done: talking about the issues that matter to suburban voters.

McDonnell avoided discussion of divisive social issues such as abortion and gay rights, crafting his campaign around particular concerns raised by voters from Alexandria to Aldie. He reached out to minority communities and drilled so deeply into local concerns that he was discussing Lyme disease in one neighborhood and Guantanamo Bay prisoners in another.

As a result, Fairfax County backed a Republican gubernatorial candidate for the first time since 1997, and McDonnell took back Prince William and Loudoun counties for his party after a five-year Democratic trend that culminated with last year's presidential election. Only the liberal heartlands of Arlington County and Alexandria stuck with the Democrats, with sizable victories for R. Creigh Deeds.

McDonnell's decisive performance across Northern Virginia was boosting Republican fortunes down the ballot. Newcomer Thomas A. "Tag" Greason defeated incumbent Democrat David E. Poisson in eastern Loudoun County, and two other Republican challengers also won seats held by Democrats in Northern Virginia.

McDonnell's strong showing in the region demonstrates that Democrats cannot take Northern Virginia for granted despite an influx of young, minority voters who tend to vote Democratic. It shows that the region will continue to be a battleground for years as candidates of both parties see openings in the populous, affluent area. And it underscores what has been conventional wisdom in Virginia politics, but which had been applied to Democrats rather than Republicans: that a hardworking candidate conversant on the issues of importance to suburban voters can fare well in Northern Virginia, regardless of party.

Democrats say this year's election was an anomaly, not indicative of their overall strength in the region. Deeds is widely believed to have run a flawed campaign, failing to connect with suburban voters and struggling against unfavorable winds in Washington. McDonnell, a Fairfax native, stepped in where Deeds was absent, visiting Fairfax often and highlighting his understanding of its culture and problems.

"The same forces at work that favored McDonnell statewide favored him in Fairfax," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). "Creigh Deeds failed to connect with Northern Virginia. I think he made a valiant effort, but he comes from a very rural part of the state and . . . there are just so many realities that characterize urban and suburban life in Northern Virginia that are just night-and-day different from Creigh Deeds's reality."

Underscoring the point, Fairfax voters backed Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Four years ago, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Timothy M. Kaine focused heavily on Loudoun and Prince William, emphasizing "smart growth" at a time when development and traffic topped the list of concerns. This time, it was McDonnell who mapped out a campaign strategy that would embrace Northern Virginia to an unprecedented degree for a Republican statewide candidate.

McDonnell also tapped into the economic concerns that have overshadowed development. Prince William had the highest number of foreclosures in the region last year and saw home values plummet by as much as one-third since the peak of the market. Voters in the exurbs were primed for McDonnell's low-taxes message and were turned off by Deeds's willingness to raise taxes for transportation.

"Northern Virginia sends millions to Richmond but only gets thousands back for transportation," said Dianne Swavely, an Occoquan resident who voted for McDonnell. "We're not getting our fair share, and I'm getting tired of it."

McDonnell also went directly to two Republicans elected for decades in this region: Rep. Frank R. Wolf (Va.) and former congressman Tom Davis. Their advice: Don't run away from your low-tax, pro-business message, but do as much as you can to minimize social issues and reach out early and often to the region's vast network of ethnic minority communities.

Davis counseled McDonnell to avoid a lot of talk about same-sex marriage, anti-gay employment discrimination and illegal immigration, which McDonnell and other Republicans had seized upon in past years to detrimental effect among Northern Virginia voters. Wolf, a conservative who has survived politically for decades in an increasingly Democratic congressional district that stretches from McLean to Winchester, brought his own game plan to the campaign: a focus on the bread-and-butter "micro-issues" that his constituents care most about.

McDonnell followed Wolf's advice, spending time in various communities talking about issues of local importance and dropping a mail piece a few days later with pictures of his visit.

In McLean, the issue was transportation; in parts of western Fairfax and Loudoun, it was Lyme disease; in Leesburg and Manassas, it was gangs; and in Alexandria, it was concern about bringing in terrorism suspects for trial from Guantanamo Bay.

Similarly, McDonnell took Davis's advice on penetrating the region's immigrant communities. He spent nearly four months meeting with groups of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Latino community and business leaders.

At a gathering of Hispanics in Fairfax, he greeted the group with "Buenas noches." In Falls Church, he spoke at a Vietnamese American shopping center draped in the colors of the flag of the former South Vietnam.

"He is a household name here," said Shandon Phan, 30, a nonprofit organization worker and a member of the Vietnamese American National Chamber of Commerce. "He runs ads in magazines and TV and radio, and he comes to meet-and-greet events with his wife. It was a very personal touch."

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