Sen. Charles S. Robb has launched an energetic campaign on behalf of Democrats in Virginia's General Assembly races, spreading $100,000 among candidates and stumping hard on their behalf, while previewing themes for his own reelection bid next fall.
At one typical stop, Robb promoted a roster of state and local candidates at a Mount Vernon Democrats ice cream social before driving home his point: As the General Assembly goes this Election Day, so goes control over redrawing legislative and congressional districts critical to the party's future--and to Robb's own fortunes in 2000.
"How we vote this fall will determine who gets to draw the lines and determine who gets elected to the General Assembly for the next 10 years," Robb told 75 Alexandria area activists. "The election on November second is going to make a real difference--in all our lives."
Few more so than Robb's. Fresh from their historic sweep of statewide offices in 1997, Republicans need to pick up only one seat in the House of Delegates in November to take over the General Assembly.
If Democrats lose the legislature, party leaders fear Robb will be left isolated as head of a demoralized party, feeding the perception that the second-term senator is an underdog against the likely Republican nominee, former governor George Allen.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) is devoting himself to winning Republican control of the General Assembly, vowing to raise $4 million for GOP candidates. Allen too has hit the trail, pledging to send $300,000 to 40 races.
Robb's efforts on behalf of a dozen Democrats began during Congress's August recess, when he campaigned in Hampton Roads with state Senate and House candidates and spoke to the Virginia AFL-CIO convention in Williamsburg. The next week, he toured western Virginia with General Assembly candidates, pledged aid to drought-stricken tobacco farmers and appeared at a school.
In Alexandria last month, Robb's visit with Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller, a state Senate candidate, Del. Gladys B. Keating, running for reelection, and House candidate Kristen J. Amundson came after he attended back-to-back Fairfax Democratic events and gave $5,000 to state Senate candidate Leslie L. Byrne.
He has swung from a U.S. Capitol reception for black Virginia civil rights leaders to a Rockingham County party breakfast to a Norfolk Labor Day rally with President Clinton and AFL-CIO President John L. Sweeney.
"If he helps us as a party this year, it helps him next year," said state Sen. John S. Edwards (Roanoke), who like Robb is a lawyer and ex-Marine facing a tough GOP challenger. Edwards received a $5,000 donation from Robb, who also was a host at a fund-raiser that netted $25,000 for Edwards.
Democrats are anxious about Robb's slow start in his race against Allen, said Del. Alan A. Diamonstein (Newport News), a close ally for two decades and Democratic National Committee member from Virginia.
Robb "knows his opponent is doing nothing but campaigning," Diamonstein said.
The senator maintains that his Senate job is his first priority. Still, with no Senate incumbent facing as hard a road to reelection, it is clear that Robb hits the trail with enormous campaign work to do.
Robb, 60, has never lost a Virginia election, and backers are confident that Virginians will reward him for a record dating back to his popular term as governor. But he has never trailed an opponent at this stage by as much as he trails Allen. A Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research survey conducted recently showed Allen leading among registered voters, 50 percent to 38 percent. Robb also faces a greater than 2 to 1 deficit in fund-raising.
Allen declines to criticize Robb for now, but other Republicans are ready. "I ask Mr. Robb, what has he done?" said state Republican Party Chairman J. Randy Forbes, a state senator from Chesapeake, reviving an attack used against Robb by former governor L. Douglas Wilder in his 1994 Democratic primary challenge.
On the trail, Robb is introduced as a Senate balanced-budget hawk who plowed $1 billion into Virginia schools and raised test scores without increasing taxes.
He pushes legislators' education initiatives and mentions that his youngest daughter, Jennifer, plans to become a teacher in Arlington or Fairfax next fall, "so I can brag about making education a commitment, not just a priority."
Setting up attacks on Allen's transportation and environmental record, Robb is sponsoring Senate measures to create a Washington regional road financing authority and to curb logging in national forests. And he regularly courts the African American vote, citing his work for farmers, anti-poverty programs and black politicians.
"Robb is trying to reassemble the coalition that has been successful for him, but the Democrats don't have much margin for error," said Richmond political scientist Robert D. Holsworth, citing Robb's attempt to appeal to a wide range of voters, including those in the Washington and Hampton Roads suburbs, union members, defense workers and black voters.
Black support in particular has been "an Achilles' heel" for Virginia Democrats in the 1990s, Holsworth said: "When Democrats have been unsuccessful in energizing the African American vote, they lose." To win, said Daniel G. LeBlanc, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, "Chuck Robb needs everyone with influence with the Democratic base marching in lock step."