After consecutive pummelings, Virginia Democrats hunt for path back to power

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 9:36 PM

RICHMOND - After two straight years of crushing electoral defeats, Virginia Democrats know they need to do something to start winning again - they're just not sure what.

Some party leaders and activists say Democrats should keep the focus on the same policies, but also must do a better job of communicating with Virginians.

"I think the problem is the message is not getting out,'' said C. Richard Cranwell, the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. "We've got to overcome the disconnect."

Others say Democrats need to concentrate more on policies that Republicans have been advocating: creating jobs and cutting spending.

"If you talk about issues, the rest will take care of itself,'' state Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) said.

But all of them insist that Democrats will return to prominence in a state where for decades, political power has tilted back and forth between the two major parties. The Democrats just need to figure out how to get voters enthusiastic enough to go to the polls on Election Day and, more importantly, to vote for their candidates.

"Back in 2008, people were wrong to write the obituary of the Republican Party,'' House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said. "And they're wrong to write the obituary of the Democratic Party now."

Last week, Republicans toppled three members of Congress and nearly defeated a fourth, leaving Democrats with just three of the state's 11 House seats.

Tuesday's election came a year after Republicans swept all three statewide races - governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general - and picked up six seats in the House of Delegates. Virginia Democrats' only remaining base of power is the state Senate, and all of those seats are up for grabs in November 2011.

But the party's problems in Virginia are larger than electoral losses.

A party divided

Much like Republicans, who have spent years trying to solve a split between moderates and anti-tax social conservatives, Democrats face a similar division between the establishment and grass-roots, moderates and progressives.

With no Democrat in the governor's mansion, the Virginia party has no obvious leader, and activists are squabbling about who should be the next party chairman and how that person should be chosen.

Former gubernatorial candidate and Alexandria delegate Brian Moran was urged to run for party chairman by Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) and former governor Timothy M. Kaine, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, but some are criticizing the party's establishment for hand-selecting him.

"I recognize that both Mark and Tim, as former governors, are used to dictating the party chair. This is a prerogative traditionally given to the state's chief executive,'' wrote Del. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) in a recent letter to fellow Democratic lawmakers. "However, the current environment is different. This is not _blankHarry Byrd's Democratic Party; it is the people's Democratic Party."

Former Arlington County Democratic Committee chairman Peter Rousselot announced Thursday that he would challenge Moran, with the backing of grass-roots activists.

Moran said he welcomed the competition. "I think it's great - the Democratic Party is alive and well,'' he said. "We're a vibrant party."

On Dec. 4 in Newport News, the Democratic State Central Committee will pick a replacement for Cranwell, who is stepping down after leading the party for five years.

"I think Democrats in Virginia need to know that somebody's home,'' Rousselot said. "I think in the recent past, the party in Virginia has not been aggressive enough in speaking out."

Back to the right

A decade ago, Virginia Republicans controlled all five statewide offices, including both U.S. Senate seats, and the General Assembly.

Democrats began gaining ground in 2001 with the election of Warner as governor. They later won another gubernatorial election, both U.S. Senate seats, control of the state Senate and, for the first time in four decades, the state's 13 electoral votes for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Now the pendulum appears to be swinging back.

"I don't think you'll find Virginians trust either political party [enough] to give them a blank check,'' Warner said. "Virginians are at the core about folks who are more in the center and folks getting stuff done."

Mame Reiley, one of the state's top Democratic political consultants, said Democrats would be better off working with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), whom she praised for bringing jobs to the state. "We can't put party before Virginians,'' she said. "They want to know we're going to do everything we can to bring new jobs in Virginia."

Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said Democrats need to understand that their policies do not fit in with a generally conservative state.

"To me, if I was chair of the Democrat Party, and I had lost as bad as I had lost last year and as bad as I lost this year I wouldn't be talking about a glitch in these last two elections. I'd be thinking, 'Hey, we need to make some major changes,' '' Mullins said. "The voters have rejected their core beliefs."

GOP weighs what's next

Immediately after Tuesday's victories, Republicans began looking toward future elections.

Already, two Republicans are running to replace state Sen. Robert Hurt, who was elected to Congress on Tuesday. A third will announce Monday that he will run for the seat held by Del. H. Morgan Griffith, who also was elected to Congress.

The state Board of Elections will certify Tuesday's results Nov. 22. Hurt (R-Pittsylvania), who defeated Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello in the 5th District, and Griffith (R-Salem), who defeated Rep. Rick Boucher, are expected to resign their state seats soon after. McDonnell will then set a pair of special elections to fill the two seats. Cranwell said he has candidates to run for both seats in the Republican-leaning districts, but declined to name them.

Next November, all 140 legislators will be on the ballot.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said members of his caucus have been knocking on doors every weekend, just as they always have.

"We'll just continue doing what we're doing,'' Saslaw said. "We don't have a lot of problems."

Room at the top

Sen. James Webb (D) has yet to say whether he will run for reelection in 2012, and Democrats have few obvious choices for the 2013 races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) already is running as the heir apparent to McDonnell, and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) has hinted at running for reelection, though some want him to run for governor instead.

Former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, who made an unsuccessful bid for his party's nomination for governor last year, is widely expected to make another run in 2013. Other names mentioned for 2013 include Armstrong and McEachin, and possibly state Sens. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) or former state delegates Steve Shannon and Shannon Valentine. Many activists also are encouraging Perriello to consider a run for governor or U.S. Senate.

Webb declined to comment for this story, but his spokesman said in a brief statement that the senator "believes the Democratic Party must reaffirm its historic commitment to fight for the interests of working Americans and to ensure fairness of opportunity for everyone."

Paul Goldman, a former Democratic Party of Virginia chairman, said McDonnell's landslide 2009 win should have been a "canary in the coal mine," predicting the souring of Democratic fortunes in the state.

McDonnell's general-election rival, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), ran on a promise to continue the policies of Warner and Kaine - and was soundly defeated.

"Nobody is that popular," Goldman said. "That's the message the voters were sending. . . . The Democrats now have to act more like the out-party. We've had some successes, but you have to remember we're not so good that we can be a top-down party. You need to reach out more."

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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