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Virginia Politics
With VCU Political Analyst Robert D. Holsworth

Monday, July 16, 2001

The Virginia gubernatorial race is heating up, as Democrat Mark R. Warner and Republican Mark L. Earley pound the pavement and woo potential voters in November. Their first debate was Saturday, July 14, where they faced off on issues affecting voters across the state. (Read the article.)

What do Virginians care most about? Which candidate has a better strategy for connecting with undecided voters? How much of a factor will money be in the race?

Prof. Robert D. Holsworth is the director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert in politics in the Old Dominion.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Transcript follows:


washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Prof. Holsworth. Can you start by giving us an overview of what happened at the debate and your impressions of it?

Robert D. Holsworth: The debate furnished an excellent start to the campaign. It covered a wide range of matters, from the candidates' basic qualification for office to a variety of both and old new matters that governors will have to confront (SOL's, transportation, and now stem cell research). Warner and Earley had significant differences of opinion, but expressed these differences in relatively civil tones that was nothing like the Forbes-Lucas congressional race that we had just witnessed. I felt that these are two extremely bright candidates who probably have more interest in questions of governance than in campaign tactics. The important line of division that emerged was the debate over qualifications: Warner contends that the budget wreck in Richmond and the lack of attention to important infrastructure issues calls for a new kind of politician and a new way of conducting politics in Virginia. This implies that Earley is simply part of the old regime. Earley maintains that Warner's lack of experience in elected office renders him essentially unqualified to run a large state- he noted that he wouldn't "in a million years" think of going up to Warner's venture capital firm and tell him how to run his business. Again, two very smart candidates, it should be a very intellectually engaging campaign- whether it will be viscerally engaging for the public is still an open question in my mind.

Springfield, Va.: Is there any polling data available that's measuring how Northern Virginia feels about this race? My daily commute takes me through most of Fairfax County, and I frankly haven't seen a lot of enthusiasm for the race either in terms of bumper stickers, yard signs, or conversations at the office. Is it safe to say that Northern Virginia is still very much up in the air, and if so, couldn't that be seen as a positive for the Earley campaign since Warner is theoretically supposed to dominate this region of the state?

Robert D. Holsworth: I do think that northern Virginia is still up for grabs. My own take is that there is "two" northern Virginias- the close in suburbs that lean Democratic and the fast growing outer rim suburbs that are relatively solid Republican counties. Fairfax, the largest single jurisdiction, is more of a swing district. I fell that both candidates will carry the parts of northern Virginia that lean heavily toward their party and will battle over Fairfax. At the moment, I would think that Warner- given his roots in NOVA probably has an advantage over Earley here- but I would have said the same thing about Don Beyer four years ago. So Warner and Earley will have to earn the NOVA swing vote by addressing issues that are important. I also think that Earley may be somewhat damaged in this region by the internal war that took place among Republicans during the spring, reinforcing the beliefs of some moderate GOP's that their party had been hijacked by the right. But Earley is an impressive candidate and the democrats ought not to be too complacent about Warner's apparent regional advantage.

Annandale, VA: Where do you see the level of interest in this race at this time of the year compared to the 1997 and 1993 Gubernatorial races? Mark Earley is roughly 5 points behind Mark Warner right now. If he is tied or slightly ahead of Warner by Labor Day, do you think Earley can win this race?

Robert D. Holsworth: Earley can certainly win the race. Remember that Virginia has trended Republican almost uniformly since 1989. Since 1989, there has been only a single Democrat (Beyer v. Farris in 93)who has ever received more than 50% of the vote in a Virginia statewide race. The challenge is really on the democratic side; to wean folks who have been Republican at some time in the recent past, over to them. I believe that Warner is an extremely formidable candidate, but he cannot afford to make many mistakes, given the natural political tilt of the state at present.

Alexandria, Va.: Some analysts believe the governor's race will be fought most fiercely in the outer suburbs and rural Virginia. Do you agree?

Robert D. Holsworth: There are any number of keys to the race and you've mentioned some of them. Let me try to sketch out in the simplest of terms what I think that each candidate has to in terms of electoral calculations. Warner has two big challenges: a) he needs to mobilize and energize base more extensively than any candidate has done since Doug Wilder. African-American turnout was much lower in the gubernatorial elections of the 1990's than it was in the 1980's. b) Warner cannot win with only Democratic votes. He needs GOP leaning independents and moderates to vote for him if he is going to win. So the big question is where can he find these voters. He is hoping that his ties to the business community will help with suburban voters and he is making a more extensive effort in rural Virginia than any Democrat running for governor has since the 1980's. Indeed, his passion for bringing economic development to rural Virginia is probably the most distinctive part of his campaign- his is at his most eloquent, as he was on Saturday, when he addresses this topic. Earley's electoral calculations is relatively simple, I think. If he can minimize the defection of GOP-leaning Virginia voters, he is likely to win. Earley will attempt to link his candidacy to popular Republican figures in Virginia such as George Bush and George Allen. (He hardly mentioned Jim Gilmore's name on Saturday.) And he will attempt to suggest , as he did on Saturday, that Mark Warner is not a candidate who transcends party labels, but is a Democrat through and through, who gave money to Chris Dodd, Bill Clinton, and Ted Kennedy. Maintaining the Republican advantage in the outer suburbs and rural Virginia is crucial to this.

Herndon,VA: I find this race very interesting given the current state of political parties in VA. The Democrats have one of the weakest party organizations that I've seen, while the Republicans are much stronger, with additional support and direction coming from national GOP leaders that have emerged from VA politics as well. However, Mark Warner seems to have a much stronger campaign organization than Mark Earley. Some of this I am assuming is related to resources, as well as the fact that Warner has been running unopposed for the last year and has a well-oiled machine by now. The question is, can a top-notch campaign team trump a strong party organization? Granted that Republicans have hurt themselves with the budget impasse and have tensions within the party too, but overall they are much stronger across the state. What kind of role will parties play in the campaign, and how do you think voters in VA view the two parties now given Richmond's gridlock? What are the potential consequences for parties in this election?

Robert D. Holsworth: A long but a great question. I'm working on a piece that tries to examine this issue right now. The grassroots organization on the GOP side is far stronger than the one that the Democrats' have. I am not even sure that the Democrats have a grassroots organization that is party based. If you looked at the Robb-Allen campaign, the grassroots activity of the Democrats is basically interest-group based (teachers, labor, gay rights, abortion rights, etc.)

Warner is a smart guy and I think that he has recognized this and that is why he has put so much effort into building a strong campaign organization. Moreover, I think that he believes that while the state has clearly tilted Republican, there is also fairly widespread dissatisfaction with what just went on between the Governor and the Assembly in the past session. In an odd way, he is in the same position that George Bush was- campaigning on changing the tone of politics in Richmond and attempting to link his opponent to a status quo that wasn't very pretty. I think that a Democrat can win in Virginia, but not one who campaigns just as a Democrat.

North Potomac, MD: For all the examination of issues in the Virginia gubernatorial race, wouldn't it be easier to decide who's going to win by just looking at who is in the White House? When Carter won in '76, Republicans won the governorship in '77. When Reagan and Bush won in '80, '84 and '88, Democrats won in Va. in '81, '85 and '89. And Clinton's two victories were followed by George Allen and Jim Gilmore! Sounds like good news for Mark Warner this year.

Robert D. Holsworth: I often joke about this myself. Do you think that Mark
Earley was hoping that the Supreme Court would decide the election for Gore?

Annandale, Va.: Hello Prof. Holsworth!

Already, we have seen the opening salvo of campaign ads for Virginia's gubernatorial race and, in my opinion, they have been disappointing so far. It seems both candidates are trying to out "family value" each other (i.e., ads that emphasize the candidates family members, their personal biography, religious faith, etc.).

As a northern Virginian forced to deal with this region's horrendous traffic mess everyday and an aging mother who I wonder how I am going to take care of when she gets ill, I could care less whether either candidate is a "family man" or goes to church every Sunday. I want to know both candidates' solution's to Northern Virginia's traffic problems, access to health care and affordable prescription drugs, education, the environment, the budget problems created by the car tax repeal, and suburban sprawl. How much do you think these "bread and butter" issues will be addressed by either campaign? What, in your opinion, will be the defining issue in this year's Virginia governor's race?


Robert D. Holsworth: At the moment, I don't see a single issue deciding the race as neither candidate has developed the sharp focus that characterized the Allen and Gilmore campaigns of the 1990's. I think the campaign will focus on: the qualifications of the individual (I do believe that this is important although the ads sometimes trivialize this), and the general debate between tax cutting and infrastructure development. Whether we should proceed to full elimination of the car tax completely or do we need to slow this down while we put more funding into transportation, teacher salaries, etc.

My sense is that both individuals are very policy-oriented candidates, though I am certain that some of their consultants will be leading them in different directions. Overall, I actually expect a campaign that will be good on issues and wonder if either candidate will be able to develop the emotional attachment that often serves a candidate very well.

Richmond, Va.: Prof. Holsworth, it seems to me that only political junkies are paying attention right now, so the Saturday debate was just an excellent chance for the candidates to test themselves and feel out the opposition with no one watching. If you accept that premise, what will each candidate be working on to prepare for the next debate, in your opinion?

Robert D. Holsworth: I think that candidates use debates for a couple of purposes. In one sense, debates are trial ballots for the themes that will develop in their television advertising and their mailings. And they are also used to highlight the weaknesses of your opponent. While we often tend to ask who won or who lost the debate right after it takes place, it often takes a little longer to actually figure this out, because how the campaigns utilize what was said in the debate is often more important than the immediate response. On the basis of what happened on Saturday, I expect that Mark Warner will ensure that he doesn't botch some of the "little things"-such as the names of Virginia's cabinet secretariats and that he will still work to hone his message more sharply. I expect that Earley will find ways to deflect Warner's criticism of his as a Business as usual political figure, by highlighting in even greater detail his work on legislation that crossed party lines.

Hartford, CT: It's a very different political scene than when I lived in NOVA suburbs 25 years ago. Where are the geographic centers of strength for the Democrats outside of the DC suburbs and how does Warner look in those areas?

Robert D. Holsworth: The Democratic map in Virginia looks an awful lot like the national map of the Gore-Bush election. The vast majority of jurisdictions are Republican leaning, while outside of NOVA, the democrats carry the core cities, a slice of southside that is heavily African American, a college town or two and a small slice of Southwest in cal country. Up until this year, the recent Democratic strategy has been to accept the principal dimensions of this map, attempting to maximize turnout in the urban areas and to appeal to moderate suburbanites, especially, women on the abortion issue. When this is done, the Democrats obtain the 48% of the vote that Chuck Robb achieved. So what Warner has done, and what makes this an interesting campaign for the pundit class, is attempt to expand democratic influence in GOP jurisdictions- talking about his business connections in the suburbs and attempting to counter the GOP cultural message in rural Virginia with his ideas about economic development. In my mind, the campaign is very smartly conceived, whether it will be successfully executed is another matter.

FairOaks, VA: Where's the real battleground for swing votes, demographically and regionally?

Robert D. Holsworth: There are actually a number of battlegrounds for swing voters- Fairfax County is the largest. John Warner carried it against Mark Warner. If Mark Earley carries Fairfax (or loses by a couple of thousand votes), I don't know how Mark Warner can win. Virginia Beach is often not widely recognized as a key "swing area"- when democrats hold down the GOP margin to less than 10,000 votes in VB, they can do very well. Henrico County in the Richmond area is another GOP leaning area where the Democrats have made some inroads of late- If Mark Warner can do as well if not better than Chuch Robb here, he could give Earley a hard time. Overall, however, I would lump these three places together because they are basically suburban areas that have undergone some significant demographic transition in recent years.

Also, I've spoken a lot today about rural Virginia- a an area that has been losing voters in absolute numbers, but where GOP margins have reached almost unbelievable levels- the Democrats have to reduce these margins if they are to be successful.

Arlington, Virginia: Can you explain why the candidates skirt the issue of a woman's right to choose? Also, in general, women's issues seem barely approached in the Commonwealth. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks.

Robert D. Holsworth: This issue is likely to be an important one in the campaign, but I don't the candidates to be in the lead here. I think that this is a place where interest groups will be taking the lead. Here's why (for better or worse). Mark Warner is clearly pro-choice, but he does not want to define himself primarily as a cultural liberal in a state that is culturally moderate. So he will not only de-emphasize abortion in his personal campaigning, but he will not speak about gun control, the death penalty, etc. Since choice is an issue that is important to many voters that he needs to reach, I expect that it will be more clearly articulated in targeted mailings than it general statewide television advertising. Earley, on the other hand, is clearly pro-life, but I don't expect that he will emphasize this in the substance of his campaigning (except for his position on parental notification that is broadly popular). The pro-life forces in Virginia are already well acquainted with his position and his concern has to be focused on preventing defections from GOP leaning voters which can happen on the choice issue. We may actually see a campaign that has less emphasis on this issue by the candidates themselves than any gubernatorial campaign since 1985.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Prof. Holsworth. What should we expect to see from the candidates in the next month or so?

Robert D. Holsworth: I expect the campaign to be relatively calm in the next month. Both campaigns, especially Earley's, will be out fundraising and will spend a lot of time internally honing their message for the post-Labor Day push when people other than junkies like me start thinking about their next Governor. I tend to think that the early period of the campaign is important to the extent that members of the media begin to form impressions about the issues and the candidates' strengths and weaknesses that will influence their coverage down the road.

I'm really looking forward to the campaign because I have a lot of respect for both candidates individually. I also think that, as a number of comments raised today have mentioned, we're at a crucial time in Virginia- both in terms of what happens with the parties and with public policy. I look forward to speaking with everyone as the campaign continues. Thanks for the great questions!

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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