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Virginia Republicans still struggling to attract minorities

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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Despite his efforts to reach out to black, Hispanic, Asian and other minority groups in his campaign for governor, Robert F. McDonnell's decisive victory Tuesday was largely the result of his overwhelming support among white voters.

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According to exit polling, 67 percent of white voters backed the Republican over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds. He got a larger share of the white vote than any Republican in Washington Post exit polls dating to 1994, with the exception of President George W. Bush in 2004.

One in four nonwhite voters statewide went for McDonnell, about average for Republicans in Virginia with the exception of last year's history-making election, when one in five nonwhite residents voted for Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

McDonnell won big in many of the increasingly diverse Washington suburbs. But his scant support from minorities, despite his efforts, suggests a challenge for the GOP as it tries to retain power in a state that is a destination for immigrants.

McDonnell's campaign targeted a variety of groups whose influx into Northern Virginia has contributed to its recent Democratic shift. He met with Chinese and Korean business leaders, rallied with Hispanic residents in Fairfax County, and conducted a phone bank that contacted 30,000 independent and Republican-leaning Asian voters. He also reached out to black voters in Richmond, and an African American businesswoman was one of his most visible supporters.

Some observers think McDonnell's efforts might have been most effective among whites who embrace multiculturalism, particularly in affluent, educated and diverse parts of Northern Virginia.

"A lot of moderate white voters want to feel inclusive. They feel uncomfortable with people who have any forms of bigotry or anything around them," said Republican former congressman Tom Davis, who represented parts of Northern Virginia.

"African American voters are a very tough sell for Republicans, but it doesn't mean you don't be nice to them or go to their events or respond to their concerns. And in the process, other voters will look at that as a symbol," Davis said.

Democrats' appeal

McDonnell struggled against the Democrats' historical appeal among black voters and many immigrant groups. That trend intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and with the harsh tone some Republicans have adopted over illegal immigration.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), whose Northern Virginia district encompasses some of its most diverse areas, said his party continues to be the one of civil rights.

"The Democrats are willing to open the tent and to actually reach out to help people who have not been able to make it into the economic and social mainstream," he said. "There are a lot of things [McDonnell] could do to strengthen himself and the Republican Party, and one of them would be to adopt a more moderate approach to immigration."

Few think the Republican Party could lure away a substantive number of African Americans. But Republicans are more hopeful about Asian and Hispanic immigrants.


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