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Virginia Elections: VCU Prof. Robert D. Holsworth

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Thursday, November 4, 1999

Tuesday's elections in Virginia brought a historic victory for Republicans, as they claimed control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time. With the GOP in charge of both the governorship and the General Assembly, what will this mean for politics in Virginia and the rest of Gov. Jim Gilmore's reign?

Robert D. Holsworth is the director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on politics in the Old Dominion. He was live online Thursday, Nov. 4 to talk about about Tuesday's elections. The transcript follows:

Free Media: Good afternoon, Prof. Holsworth, and welcome. What was the voter turnout like in Tuesday's election? Do you know if it was higher or lower than the average in national elections?

Robert Holsworth: Virginia has off-year elections, which means the turnout is typically lower than you would have if you had state elections while you were holding congressional or presidential elections. On Tuesday, the turnout was highly variable. In some places where there were contested general assembly races and contested local elections, turnout was high, but in other parts of the state where incumbents ran uncontested, turnout as expected was very very low.

Richmond, Va.: As a long-time state employee, I am interested in knowing whether this realignment in the General Assembly will affect me and my colleagues. Can you tell, at this point, whether state employees will feel any impact as a result of the elections?

Robert Holsworth: The vast majority of state employees are not in political positions, and will not feel a direct impact on their jobs. There are, however, some positions that are politically appointed – clerk of the House of Delegates, etc., and there are some questions about whether those people will continue to have employment under the new leadership.

Free Media: Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the Northern Virginia congressman and head of the Republican's congressional campaign committee, pumped a lot of money into the legislative races. Has this bought him enough good will downstate for a statewide run? Any ideas about what he might run for and when?

Robert Holsworth: Tom Davis emerged as a major player across the Commonwealth of Virginia in these elections. He already has one of the largest bases in Virginia, with his popularity in Northern Virginia. His contributions to campaigns throughout the state won him more friends in regions where he had been relatively unknown. There are many people who believe that Tom Davis might consider running for John Warner's [U.S.] Senate seat when it becomes available, or maybe even possibly run for governor some day.

Davis could potentially be a very strong statewide candidate for any office in Virginia, if he could obtain the nomination of the Republicans. And he certainly helped himself during the election this time.

Washington, D.C.: Congressman Virgil Goode has been courted by the Virginia GOP to switch parties before the 2000 elections. How do you think the GOP win of the state legislature will impact his decision in this matter?

Robert Holsworth: Great question. In general, I think the GOP win will have a very significant effect on the re-drawing of the congressional lines. There are a number of Democrats who are potentially vulnerable in a GOP-led redistricting. There is some talk that the GOP might think of combining the districts of Virgil Goode and Rick Boucher. And this certainly puts more pressure on Goode to decide whether he will remain as a Democrat or actually switch parties. As many people probably know, Goode was one of the few Democrats who voted for the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Newport News, Va.: Dr. Holsworth,
I continue to hear how the Republican takeover of the General Assembly means "bad news" for Sen. Robb in next year's election. As a political science student at Old Dominion University, I follow state politics quite intensely. It's no secret the senator is going to have a tough race, but how can yesterday's election, with just a handful of seats shifting parties, really predict how Virginia will vote in a statewide election one year from now? Isn't there just too many unforeseen factors to make such a call? Besides just pundit speculation, what hard data exists to support this thesis? Thank you.

Robert Holsworth: It's correct to say that the election is much too far off to begin to offer predictions. Having said that, early polls, for whatever they're worth, seem to suggest that Sen. Robb is an underdog. And there is concern among Democrats that the party is not as well organized at the moment as the Republicans are. Sen. Robb has typically done everything that the Democrats need to do to win elections: He has run well in Northern Virginia, he has reduced the Republican margin in Virginia Beach, and he has run strongly among African Americans.

Moreover, our polls show that Sen. Robb's approval rating is considerably higher today than it was in 1994. But the fact remains that he is running against the most popular political figure in the state right now. This has the potential to be a very exciting race, and the pundits are looking forward to enjoying it.

Richmond, Va.: Dr. Holsworth,
I took your Virginia Government & Politics with last fall and it was one of the best classes I have had so far at VCU. Thanks a lot!

Now my question. What do you think about the situation which is unfolding involving Sen. Warren Barry. I think Sen. Barry is in the perfect position. He's saying to the governor, "Go ahead, try to mess with me!" The governor needs Sen. Warren Barry, a lot more than Sen. Warren Barry needs the governor. Thoughts?

Robert Holsworth: This is a fascinating little vignette developing. Last Saturday, a number of Republicans were quoted saying that they were ready to strip Sen. Barry of his transportation committee chair because he had funnelled campaign money he had obtained as a Republican to his son's race for Fairfax County Sheriff as a Democrat. But since the Republicans did not pick up any seats in the Senate, they may be much more reluctant to do this today. Barry is threatening to bolt the party if his chairmanship is taken away. It would be a lot of fun to be a fly on the wall when he meets with Gov. Gilmore next week.

Charlottesville, Va.: I'd like to ask you a question about media bias: It's the first time Republicans take control of both houses in over a century. Gov. Gilmore campaigned strongly and won a big victory in Virginia. And who does the Washington Post plaster on the front page (at least on the online edition) on Wednesday morning? Leslie Byrne, who won a narrow (and soon to be challenged by recount) victory. This is typical of a newspaper that finds it newsworthy to publish an above-the-fold picture of Bob Dole when he fell off a podium during the 1996 campaign. For once, the Post could just suck it up and concede that the Republicans won.

Robert Holsworth: I think the regular edition of The Post led with the picture of Gov. Gilmore, like it should have. This was the Republicans' night and Gov. Gilmore deserves a good portion of the credit.

Compared to the 1989 poll that claimed Marshall Coleman was 24 points behind Doug Wilder, the online picture seems to be a rather minor event. Seriously, I think the general coverage of the campaign in The Post has certainly focused on the GOP takeover and the governor's role in it. Indeed, I could imagine the Democrats complaining that the two major stories leading up to the election almost assumed that the Republicans would win.

I'm not certain that the real media bias is ideological in nature. It may be that the bias operates differently. As I see it, the media tends to be excessively cynical about politicians' motives and probably focuses too much of its coverage on the horse race elements of a campaign. And this doesn't always have an ideological bias.

I remember sitting around at dinner one evening and listening to all of the members of the presumably liberal media fervently express their desire that Ollie North would be the Republican nominee for senator. Because more than anything else, they wanted a good story.

Alexandria (Fairfax County), Va.: Sir,

After the 2000 Census, the Republicans get to "redraw the lines." State Republican leaders have stated that as a result of this re-districting, the GOP could pick up at least 2-3 seats in the 2002 House elections. Do you know specifically which districts would be vulnerable in the 2002 elections?

Robert Holsworth: I would say that there is much talk now that Congressman Own Pickett and Congressman Norman Sisisky could be vulnerable in a Republican-dominated redistricting. And there is speculation that the Republicans might try to combine the Boucher and Goode seats.

Redistricting doesn't always work the way it is intended. After the 1990 redistricting, the Democrats immediately lost eight seats in the Senate. Moreover, the Democrats got so cocky that they decided to place Congressman George Allen and Congressman Tom Bliley in the same district. In effect, they created Gov. George Allen and the Republican leadership of the 1990s. The Republicans could learn a few lessons from what happened to the Democrats.

Free Media: Vice President Gore has been talking about sprawl as a national campaign issue. Do Tuesday's results tell us anything about how traffic and development might play in 2000 in Virginia and other southern states?

Robert Holsworth: The new big issue in Virginia. Sprawl is having a tremendous effect on local elections. We are watching entire boards of supervisors be removed on the issue of not doing enough to manage growth. This is especially true of the fast-growing localities. Here at VCU we did a poll which showed that 86 percent of the people in Northern Virginia thought that traffic was a serious or very serious problem (I wonder who the other 14 percent are – telecommuters). The growth issue has yet to have much effect on state politics, but certainly has the potential to become quite important. At the moment, there does not seem to be any partisan divide in terms of people's feelings on this matter. It is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. But we are likely to see an enterprising political figure in one of the parties try to make this issue her or his own.

Raleigh, N.C.: Greetings from Raleigh, Dr. Holsworth.

1. Had Sen. Stanley Walker (D-Norfolk) not lost in a Democratic-leaning seat, Democrats would have picked up a seat and tied the state Senate. How would have this change the political dynamic in Richmond?

2. Given Del. Cranwell's dealmaking skills what darkhourses should we keep our eyes on in the speaker's race?


Jay Reiff

Robert Holsworth: First, I would say that if the Democrats had obtained parity in the Senate, it probably would have had its largest effect on the redistricting scenario. It would have given the Democrats an effective veto on the more partisan plans that the Republicans might develop. But it probably wouldn't have had much effect on the day-to-day legislation in Virginia. I tend to think that the big issues facing Virginia – transportation, education, growth management – are not Democratic or Republican issues. And that the divisions on these matters often break out along other kinds of lines. Moreover, the Senate has not been as partisan a body as the House has been over the last four years. And the Senate basically would have conducted business as usual with 20-20 parity. The only major difference, in terms of the Senate's internal operation, is that 20-20 would have maintained the power sharing agreement that will now expire in January.

In terms of Del. Cranwell – he is one of the most inventive and skillful legislators that I've had the pleasure to observe. But it may be even beyond his formidable skills to influence the speakership race now that the Republicans have 52 members of the House.

Prior to Tuesday, it was thought that the Republicans might turn to an independent, Lacey Putney, for speaker if the GOP only had a slim majority. Since Tuesday, I think there is more sentiment within the Republican Party to find one of their own to be speaker. What good is the victory if you can't enjoy the fruits?

Mansassas, Va.: The Washington Post reported that Democrats, reading polling, were focussing on "gun control" in several races. Yesterday's Post indicated that it didn't seem to have had much effect. What were those races and result?

In 1994, polling showed 80-plus percent wanted "assault weapon" ban, but Bill Clinton told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in mid-January '95 that the Democrats' vote for such a ban caused the Republicans to win control of both houses for first time in 40 years.

Aren't pollsters failing to measure intensity? And doesn't raising the gun issue cost votes by motivating and activating gun owners?

Robert Holsworth: This question is obviously from someone who knows an awful lot about political science, because the intensity issue is extraordinarily important. But I still have to say that in this year's election, that wasn't the problem with how the Democrats utilized the gun control issue. The problem was that the Democrats were, in effect, claiming that incumbent Republican members of the House of Delegates really didn't care if kids had guns in school. That is a difficult argument to make at a local level when many of the voters tend to know these candidates personally. The public is very concerned about violence in schools, but I think it had trouble believing that their local representatives really didn't care about it.

The Democrats didn't suffer because the pro-gun forces were mobilized by this campaign. But what the Democrats discovered was that the gun issue wasn't sufficiently strong to make people turn out from office Republican incumbents. I do believe, however, that this issue is going to be raised again and debated very vigorously in the Robb-Allen Senate campaign.

Arlington, Va.: Much has been made of the regional factions meaning much more than party affiliation when the assembly actually gets to work. The governor was here a couple of weeks ago being heckled and blasted including by members of his own party for his idea to widen I-66. Shouldn't the governor be a little less smug given the trouble he has even getting along with members of his party?

Robert Holsworth: I do believe that on a number of issues – transportation being one of them – it will be difficult for the governor to generate complete unity among the Republicans. Moreover, the Republicans do not have a leader in either the House or the Senate at the moment that is capable of exercising the same kind of discipline on its members that former senator Hunter Andrews and former majority leader Dick Cranwell were renowned for. But the results of Tuesday's elections give the governor a new opportunity. He can now reach out to members of the minority party and begin to horse-trade for their votes.

I think there is much less incentive for the Democrats to remain completely united when their leaders do not have any rewards or benefits to distribute. And this provides the kind of opening that a shrewd politician like Gov. Gilmore is likely to grasp.

Free Media: More from Dr. Holsworth: This is where inclusive politics makes a lot of practical sense.

Brandywine, Md.: I have found the "politics" of the Virginia Elections very interesting, most especially the Sheriff's race in Fairfax County and the involvement of Sen. Warren Barry (R) in his sons Democratic campaign. The conclusion I have arrived at is that Sen. Barry is quite and extraordinary man/father, not to mention seasoned and smart politician. How far do you really think Gov. Gilmore will get in his attacks on the esteemed senator?

Robert Holsworth: The wider the Republican margin, the greater the leeway the governor would have. But with Sen. Barry's threat to hold the party's majority hostage, a rapprochement is fairly likely. I was surprised that more individual Democrats did not do this in the past when the Democrats had a wafer-thin majority. Because this is the kind of situation in which every senator is a king.

Big Stone Gap, Va.: Who do you see as being the more viable candidate to both gain the GOP nomination and defeat the Democratic nominee in 2001, Hager or Earley?

Robert Holsworth: That race is already started. Mark Earley is certainly an extraordinary political figure. He has a strong base among the social conservatives, and he has reached out to groups who normally aren't strong supporters of the Republican Party. He may be the only political figure in America who could receive his largest campaign contribution from Pat Roberston and also obtain the endorsement of The Washington Post. But it is much too soon to hand Mark Earl the nomination. John Hager is one of the most energetic and determined campaigner that I have seen. He goes to six or eight events a day, and is an extraordinarily focused individual. I never minimize the virtues of determination and hard work in politics. John Hager has constantly surprised people and ought not to be underestimated.

Free Media: More from Dr. Holsworth: The battle looming between Hager and Earley indicates one of the emerging problems that the Virginia Republicans could have. There is an emerging logjam in which they have more candidates than positions available. It's a good problem to have, but having watched some of the internal brawls of the Republicans in the '80s, they have to be sure that they do not revert to this.

Free Media: While Virginia has been trending Republican, it's been an increasingly tough state for the GOP in presidential races. The Republican nominee's margin has gone from 25 percent in 1984 and 21 percent in 1988 to 4 percent in 1992 and 2 percent in 1996. Do Tuesday's numbers suggest anything about the 2000 presidential race in Virginia?

Robert Holsworth: Wonderful insight. Traditionally, the Democrats in Virginia have always distanced themselves from the national party on the grounds that they could only be hurt by that attachment. But in the 1990s, Bill Clinton ran much stronger in Virginia than did any Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Indeed, if the president had decided to cross the Potomac and visit the state a few times, he might well have carried Virginia in both 1992 and 1996. He came close in both years without expending any personal energy or any money. So while it is true that Republicans have carried Virginia in presidential elections since 1964, it may not be so true that Virginia Democratic candidates are damaged by any attachment to the national ticket.

In the 1990s, the Republicans, in fact, have had to be concerned about the negative perception that people including Virginians have had of the Republican-dominated Congress. This may have helped the Virginia Democrats in 1995 withstand the attempt by Gov. Allen to bring in a Republican majority.

Silver Spring, Md.: I've always thought that most southern Democrats were really Republicans at heart. They've certainly been conservative enough to qualify. In the past decade, there's been more of a swing in admitting to it and registering and voting as Republicans. Therefore, it's not surprising that Virginia is creeping more and more into the Republican column or am I misinterpreting southern Democrats?

Robert Holsworth: I had a student once who answered a test question in this way:

He said that Virginia was a state in transition, in that it was moving from moderate conservatism to moderate conservatism.

And I think that if I ever write a book about Virginia, I may use that as an epigram. What has happened is that the Republicans have probably become more identified as the party of moderate conservatism. And the realignment of Virginia politics, is not that unusual, given the trends that have taken place throughout the South. What is clear throughout the South, however, is that the Democrats are finding ways to win in this environment. Look at the recent gubernatorial results in deep-South states like Alabama and Mississippi. The Virginia Democrats have this opportunity as well, but they may need new leadership, and they certainly need a more coherent message.

Free Media: That was our last question for Dr. Robert Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. Thanks to Dr. Holsworth, and thanks to everyone who joined us today – the questions were great.

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