What do the 1984 presidential results portend for Virginia's 1985 state elections?

In one sense, probably very little, judging from recent history. In 1972 Richard Nixon walloped George McGovern by 68 percent to 30 percent; but in 1973 liberal Henry Howell, the Democratic-endorsed independent, came within a percentage point of winning the governorship. In 1976 Jimmy Carter very nearly won Virginia's electoral votes, but in 1977 the Democrats (again led by Howell) lost the statehouse in a landslide. In 1980 Ronald Reagan swept the presidential contest in the Old Dominion, but Democrat Charles Robb and his slate easily captured all three state posts in 1981. Every election year is unique; each level of politics follows its own set of rules, and 1985 will be no eception.

Yet both of Virginia's parties would be foolish to ignore the message sent by the just-concluded elections for president and U.S. senator. For state Democrats, there are old lessons to learn anew. Like it or not, Virginia is a demonstrably conservative society. When Democrats nominate liberals such as Walter Mondale and Edythe Harrison, they condemn themselves to electoral defeat. A moderate-conservative such as Robb -- moderate on race and social issues, conservative on fiscal matters -- is about as far toward liberalism as Virginia Democrats can go and expect to be competitive in general elections. Robb, after all, has been the only Democratic candidate for governor, U.S. senator or president to win a Virginia campaign in 18 long years.

The roster of recent Democratic losers is not only lengthy; it is also characterized, with a few exceptions, by embarrassingly low vote percentages. Harrison's proportion of the vote (30 percent) was the weakest showing for a Democratic Senate nomnee in this century, even worse than Democrat George Rawling's 31 percent in the 1970 three-way Senate contest won by Harry Byrd Jr. Harrison also fared worse than Howell (who secured 44 percent in his losing 1977 gubernatorial bid), Jimmy Carter (who garnered 40 percent in 1980), and even Senate nominee Elmo Zumwalt, whose 38 percent in the 1976 contest for U.S. Senate gave Byrd the largest victory of his career.

Fortunately for the Democrats, they have a small stable of attractive potential gubernatorial nominees for 1985 who can project a moderate or even conservative image. Del. Dick Bagley of Hampton is a bona- fide fiscal conservative as chairman of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee. Jerry Baliles has been a tough law-and-order attorney general. Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton has not been accused of being a liberal for at least a decade. Lt. Gov. Dick Davis, while he was tarred with the liberal brush in his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1982, is after all a mortgage banker.

The problem for the Democrats in 1985 is partly caused by the intense competition among these able contenders -- rivalry that may well fracture the unity of a party that needs all hands on deck to win. But a greater and more delicate dilemma faces Democrats in filling the lieutenant governor and attorney general slots on their ticket. So far, a black, State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, is unopposed for the lieutenant governor nomination and a woman, Del. Mary Sue Terry of Patrick County, has a clear field for the party's attorney general nod. Wilder faces long odds, both because he is black -- those who think Wilder's color will not be a factor in the election haven't lived in Virginia very long -- and because he is perceived as a liberal.

Terry, even though she is a moderate and a close associate of some of the General Assembly's conservative leaders, has the handicap of Harrison's disastrous showing to overcome. However unfair it is, Harrison and Geraldine Ferraro have saddled Virginia's next Democratic woman candidate with the presumption of liberalism. And a three-member slate including one woman and one black, considered a "balanced ticket" in some states, will be viewed in many circles as a reminder of the "quota system" politics that makes the national Democratic Party so unpalatable in Virginia.

If the road to the statehouse is laden with land mines for Democrats, it is hardly paved with gold for Republicans, despite their heady 1984 triumphs. Not only may the GOP nominate a man (Wyatt Durrette) for governor who has held no public office since 1977 and has lost two consecutive races for state attorney general, but the party may also have a divisive contest for lieutenant governor among a host of candidates who are attracted by the prospect of an easy victory over Wilder.

The greatest threat to Republican success, though, is probably not disunity among party regulars but rather the growing influence of fundamentalist Christians in the state GOP. Virginia, of course, is the home of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority; yet while the state is fundamentally conservative, it is not fundamentalist conservative. Falwell himself is among the most disliked public figures in Virginia. News media surveys as well as private campaign polls have shown the public's view of him to be overwhelmingly negative.

There is no better demonstration of Falwell's unpopularity than a little-reported 1983 election for the state Senate in Lynchburg, Falwell's home base. In that contest, GOP nominee Harry Covert, Falwell's endorsed candidate and the former editor of Moral Majority Report, was defeated by more than 3 to 1 in his race against Democratic incumbent Elliot Schewel. In 1981, Falwell's widely broadcast election-eve endorsement of the Republican gubernatorial ticket almost certainly ballooned Robb's winning margins.

As internal forces try to push the state Democratic Party further to the left and the Republican Party more to the right, both groups would do well to remember that elections are not won at the ideological fringes -- certainly not on the left, but also away from the rightward pole even in conservative Virginia.