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Election 2008 Key States: Virginia

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Tim Craig
Washington Post Virginia Politics Reporter
Monday, October 27, 2008; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Virginia politics reporter Tim Craig was online Monday, Oct. 27 at noon ET to break down the state of the presidential race in Virginia -- which could vote for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964 -- and to discuss the Warner-Gilmore Senate race and the competitive U.S. House and state legislature races in the state.

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Battleground Cheat Sheet: Virginia; Also this week: More discussions on key states

The transcript follows.

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Tim Craig: Good afternoon -- I am here. One week to go. It has been an exciting year to cover Virginia politics. I'm ready to take some questions

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Washington: Which are the most combative counties in Virginia, where is the race closest? Thanks.

Tim Craig: The big battle this year in Virginia is in the exurbs; whichever candidate wins Loudoun and Prince William counties in the outer Washington suburbs likely will prevail statewide. Both of these places had been reliably Republican -- and easily went for Bush in 2004 -- but Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) won them in 2005, as did Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) in 2006. Also keep an eye on Henrico County in suburban Richmond. Hampton Roads is also a major battleground -- with its mix of African Americans, military voters and suburbanites, the region has some pretty dynamic politics. It has been trending Democratic, but national security and taxes remain huge factors in the region.

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Columbia, Md.: Pardon me for asking, but how do the major parties get a hold on their voters in a state that does not have a "party box" on voter registrations? I have been trying to figure this out for a few weeks.

Tim Craig: This is a major challenge for both parties, but one they have managed to overcome. The lack of party registration means both political parties have to devote considerable resources to identifying and tracking voters they believe are supportive. Democrats, for example, have compiled a massive database with the names of voters they know (or suspect) are supportive of their candidates. If someone votes in a Democratic primary, for example, it's a pretty safe assumption that person leans Democratic. Democrats also deploy canvassers into the neighborhoods every year to talk to voters individually; when they come across a someone who identifies themselves as being a Democrat, that information is entered into the database. Republicans have a similar system. The information then is used to target voters in get-out-the-vote efforts. Both parties also know that people who live in certain neighborhoods or communities tend to lean toward one party or another.

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Seattle: To what extent do Obama's gains in Virginia represent a lasting shift in Virginia's partisan alignment at the presidential level? Is this something that only Obama can pull-off, or are partisan affiliations in Northern Virginia so rooted in demographics that Democrats can count on Virginia as at least a swing state for the foreseeable future?

Tim Craig: Excellent question, but one I don't think we fully will know the answer to for at least another presidential election cycle. There is no doubt that Northern Virginia has moved toward the Democrats sharply in the past decade. Some of this is because of President Bush, but a lot of it has to do with fundamental demographic shifts. People often forget that, until four years ago, Fairfax County was reliably Republican in presidential contests. John Kerry was the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the county in 44 years. Obama is polling in the high 50s or low 60s in Fairfax.

The change corresponds with the rapid diversification of the region. One staggering statistic -- one in four of Fairfax County's 1 million residents now are foreign born. It likely will be increasingly difficult for a GOP presidential nominee to carry Fairfax County, but I suspect it will still come down to the right combination of Republican and Democratic candidates. Could a very moderate GOP nominee defeat a very liberal Democratic nominee? Probably in the short term, but probably not in the long-term as Fairfax becomes more urban.

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Washington: How many newly registered voters are there in Virginia? Where are most of these voters located within the state?

Tim Craig: There was a net increase of 436,000 newly registered voters this year, a 10 percent increase over a year ago. There is no party registration in Virginia, but communities with a history of supporting Democratic candidates appear to have logged the greatest percentage increases. African Americans also appeared to be registering in higher numbers; the city of Richmond, for example, saw its registration rolls grow by nearly 20 percent this year. Many Republican-leaning counties in the rural Western part of the state saw their registration numbers grow by less than 5 percent, but some traditional Republican exurban counties also saw big jumps in registration.

A big unknown is whether the new voters in the exurbs are traditional GOP voters who recently moved into places like Chesterfield County in suburban Richmond, or are Democrats who are registering for the first time. The latter, which Democrats believe, could help offset historical GOP strengths in those areas. I tend to agree with the Democrats, but we will not know for sure until Nov. 4.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I see this morning that Chuck Todd on MSNBC moved Virginia from "leaning toward Obama" to being likely Obama. What do you think of this recategorization of Virginia in this year's presidential election?

Tim Craig: Obama has led in every major poll of Virginia that I have seen in the past six weeks. In some polls, he leads by at least 10 points. He was up eight points in The Washington Post's poll this morning. Looking just at those numbers, I think you would be safe in assuming it looks like Obama will win Virginia. But considering the state's history of supporting GOP candidates, I am hesitant to call it for Obama.

Republicans also seem to stage a bit of a comeback in Virginia at the last moment. In 1996 President Clinton thought he had a shot to win Virginia, but Bob Dole prevailed. Also, Democrat Jim Webb was suppose to have a three- or four-point lead heading into the 2006 Senate race, but he won by only 9,000 votes. I would advise both sides to continue to assume Virginia could go either way on Nov. 4.

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Rest of Virginia: Any predictions on the 2nd, 5th, and 11th congressional districts?

Tim Craig: All three are Republican-held seats, but U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) is retiring in the 11th. Democrats are heavily favored to pick up the 11th, and I see no reason to doubt that given the increasing Democratic tilt of Fairfax.

In the 2nd District, U.S. Rep. Thelma Drake ((R-Va.) is fighting Democrat Glenn Nye. Drake is probably the favorite -- she survived a tough fight in 2006 -- but the Virginia Beach-based district is 20 percent black, so a big showing for Obama could result in Drake getting bounced.

In the 5th, U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode is facing a stronger-than-expected challenge from Democrat Tom Perriello. It would be a huge upset if Goode lost in the historically conservative district. With that said, some Democrats are starting to talk about this being the surprise of the night on Nov. 4.

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Baltimore: What role has former Sen. George Allen played in the campaign for Virginia? Has McCain deliberately tried to distance himself from him because of the '06 controversy?

Tim Craig: No, Sen. Allen has emerged as one of McCain's biggest surrogates in Virginia. Allen does events for McCain almost everyday. Allen's image has been reformed somewhat since 2006, but McCain is still taking a risk. Overall, however, it probably does not matter one way or another.

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Tappahannock, Va.: Tim, do you think the move of Virginia to swing state has been overstated a bit? Much has been made of the 2006 Senate race going to Webb, but I don't think he won it as much as the Allen campaign completely imploded after the "macaca" incident. I think the state has turned a little purple, but not to the extent everyone is saying.

Tim Craig: There is no doubt that Virginia is purple, but the outcome of this year's presidential race -- as well as next year's governor's race -- could help determine whether it will remain purple or even trend a bit more blue. Large swaths of Virginia remain very conservative, but so are large swaths of Illinois. All it takes in Illinois is Chicago to turn the state from Republican to Democratic; eventually, if current trends persist for another decade or so, Northern Virginia could become Virginia's Chicago. Next year's governor's race really will say a lot about the political future of the state -- if Democrats win three consecutive governor's race, it will be hard to argue against the trend

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Anonymous: Is Jim Webb out there stumping for Obama? Is Webb popular?

Tim Craig: Webb has cut a radio ad for Obama. Webb did a round of campaign events this past week, but he has not been a major presence on the trail.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think the violent incident with Frank Wolf's associates assaulting two Judy Feder staffers will push the 10th District race into competitive territory?

Tim Craig: An update to this story has just been posted on the Virginia politics blog.

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Alexandria, Va.: Tim, with a seemingly insurmountable lead by Mark Warner and a Virginia Republican party in some state of disarray, how much of a reverse coattail effect might there be for Obama?

Tim Craig: I am sure Warner helps Obama some in the rural parts of the state, but overall I am not one to believe there is such as thing as "reverse coattail effect." If you look at the polls in North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, etc., it's clear that Obama is doing well in a state like Virginia because of his message, the economy and President Bush.

With that said, Warner could help Obama pick up a point or two in Southwest Virginia -- but I tend think most people are going to be showing up to vote in the presidential contest. I actually think that Obama could end up helping Warner gain a few points. Obama is going to drive up African American and young-voter turnout to historic levels, and those people are going to turn around and vote for Warner.

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Arlington, Va.: The Arlington Democrats had set a goal of 80 percent turnout, with 80 percent Democratic votes, I believe. Based on what I've seen of canvassing in Arlington, that seems like a stretch, but it's still possible. What's your take? A big margin in Arlington has the potential to help carry the state for Obama.

Tim Craig: I am skeptical Arlington will be able to achieve that goal. The high points have been in Kaine and Webb's recent elections, when Arlington voted about 75 percent Democratic. I think in a presidential race, it's going to be hard to move much beyond that. People tend to forget that Northern Virginia still is home to tens of thousands of people who make a living by working for Republicans or conservative causes. There is also a huge workforce at the Pentagon and in the defense-contracting industry. There comes a point when Democrats reach a ceiling in Northern Virginia.

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Richmond, Va.: Any word on the Cantor-Hartke race in the 7th District? Is that such a Republican stronghold that even if Obama holds on to a large lead in Virginia, it's still a sure thing for Cantor?

Tim Craig: I haven't followed this race too closely, but Cantor is up on the air in Richmond with a major ad buy. He should be re-elected easily, given the conservative nature of his district. Bush carried it with 61 percent of the vote in 2004.

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Alexandria, Va.: What are the standard voter turnout percentages for Virginia during presidential elections? Could 2008 surpass them? By how much?

Tim Craig: Virginia historically has a pretty good voter turnout. In 2004, turnout was about 71 percent. I would not be surprised if it approaches 85 percent this year. In 1992, turnout was 84.5 percent, according to State Board of Elections.

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Hampton Cove, Ala.: Military family Web sites are abuzz with the news that Rokey Suleman, the Fairfax County Election's chief who also happens to be a Democrat operative, is rejecting military absentee ballots. I would think this would be covered in The Washington Post, but as the military community has found, the bias at The Post has become so extreme that the motto is "if it doesn't benefit Democrats, censor it."

Tim Craig: We wrote a story about this last week.

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Burke, Va.: Has Sen. Obama made any significant progress in wooing likely voters in Southwest Virginia to vote for him?

Tim Craig: This will be fascinating to watch on Election Day. During the primary, Obama failed to get even 15 percent of the vote in several of these counties, but recent polls indicate Obama now may be getting close to 40 percent of the vote. I think he is making progress, but I know Democratic strategists remain nervous about how well he actually will do on Election Day down there. He doesn't have to win Southwest Virginia to prevail statewide, but he has got to keep McCain's margins down to reasonable levels. He probably needs somewhere between 40 percent and 44 percent of the vote.

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Virginia: Interestingly enough I have spoken to several people in Virginia who are going to vote for Obama but wouldn't say so in public, because of the bias towards Republicans in rural Virginia. Do you think there are others?

Tim Craig: Interesting..

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Clifton, Va.: How long before the Virginia Republican Party realizes that putting up Gilmore for the Senate, Fimian in 11th District and Cuccinelli for Attorney General just will not work anymore? Social issues just don't work with Catholic independents like me. Home-schooling your kids automatically means I won't vote for you. I would vote for Davis over Gilmore, and just about any more middle-of-the-road Republican over the most crooked politician in Virginia, Connolly. Now, I am pro-life and reasonably conservative, but stop giving me nutcases to vote for like Fimian and Cuccinelli!

Tim Craig: I predict that if McCain loses this year, the Virginia GOP will move even farther to the right. They will argue that McCain would have done better had he been stronger on illegal immigration, abortion and other social issues. There is a real divide within in GOP. Yes, in Northern Virginia a little moderation probably would help the party, but in the rest of Virginia, the conservative brand still sells effectively. Attorney General Robert McDonnell, the GOP nominee for governor, is going to have to figure how he positions himself. I think the civil war within the Virginia GOP will break out in 2010 if McDonnell loses next year. If McDonnell wins, the party will chalk up its loses this decade to President Bush and the war in Iraq.

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Richmond, Va.: The VCU poll this morning has Obama up 51 percent to 40 percent. It is unusual to have 9 percent undecided basically a week before the election?

Tim Craig: I think a lot of those undecideds will break for McCain. I had to call some undecided voters two weeks from a previous poll, and I got a sense they were more inclined to support the GOP. With that said, if Obama is at 51 or 52 percent, he wins so long as his base of support remains solid. ... But I would be shocked if Obama gets 54 or 55 percent of the vote on Election Day. If he wins Virginia -- which remains an "if" -- it won't be by more than a few points.

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Tim Craig: Thanks everyone. Sorry I couldn't get to all the questions -- if you have something else you would like me to answer, e-mail me.

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