RICHMOND — Hillary Clinton is airing ads again in Virginia. Her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, will spend precious time campaigning in Northern Virginia and Richmond. Polls are tightening.
And so Republicans who long ago gave up any hope that Donald Trump could win here are starting to wonder: Is Virginia back in play?
Although Virginia is considered a swing state, Clinton has for months enjoyed such a comfortable lead that both campaigns went off the airwaves here in the summer.
When Trump returned with a $2 million television ad buy two weeks ago, even fellow Republicans panned the move as a financially unjustifiable face-saver, one meant to beat back rumors that he was pulling out of the state entirely.
Then this week, Clinton’s campaign launched a six-figure ad buy in Virginia.
Privately, some operatives say that television time in Virginia is part of a national strategy and that Democrats are spending advertising dollars in Northern Virginia to force Republicans to match it, costing them resources in other parts of the country where Republicans could use a boost.
Still, Kaine, a popular former Virginia governor, announced Thursday that he plans election-eve rallies in his home state. And a Hampton University poll showed Trump up for the first time in Virginia.
The survey was an outlier, one that critics said gave too much weight to rural corners of the state where Trump is popular.
But others noted that a Hampton poll got the Virginia governor’s race right in 2013, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli II by fewer than 3 points. Hampton predicted McAuliffe would win by 1 point, while other polls had double-digit margins.
Whatever the accuracy of the poll, it nudged Virginia from the “leans Clinton” category to “toss-up” in the widely cited RealClearPolitics average of polls. The buzz — among Republicans and some neutral analysts — was that recent WikiLeaks revelations and a reopened FBI investigation had weakened Clinton.
“They put the flag up, claimed it as a victory, but you’ve got to play the whole game,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who is chairman of Trump’s state campaign. “They pulled out in the third quarter, and we played the whole game.”
Voters interviewed Thursday said they were feeling anxious about Tuesday’s outcome.
“Two weeks ago, I would have told you it would nearly be a landslide,” said Jill Pennington, a 53-year-old retired software engineer and Clinton supporter from Botetourt. “I don’t think it’s going to be by a real comfortable margin because of all the hype being drummed up about the email all over again and the [FBI investigation] and all this stuff that’s coming out in the 11th hour.”
Catherine Smith, 44, an accounting assistant from Prince William County, said her confidence in a Clinton victory was shattered as polls showed a tightening race.
“Within the past week or so, results of different polls that different companies have done,” she said, left her silently seething until Wednesday when she put a “Republican for Clinton” sign on her car to amuse drivers in traffic – and maybe change some minds.
Clinton does not need Virginia to win the White House, but Trump’s path is much narrower without the state’s 13 electoral votes. A Clinton loss here would be a tremendous setback for McAuliffe, a longtime personal friend and prolific fundraiser for the former secretary of state and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
McAuliffe has been determined to deliver the state for Clinton, staying in almost daily contact with the former president and Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager who also led McAuliffe’s race for governor. He has said publicly for months that he expected the race to tighten. In private, he continues to express confidence in the outcome, according to two aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Clinton campaign officials said the TV ads and Kaine appearance show a determination to finish strong in Virginia, not a last-minute scramble to shore up a weak position.
“Hillary for Virginia and the Virginia Democratic Coordinated Campaign are working harder than ever to mobilize our support and prepare to turn out the vote for Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine and Democrats up and down the ticket on November 8,” said Brian Zuzenak, director of Clinton’s Virginia campaign. “With so much at stake in this election, we know we cannot take anything for granted. We are proud of the organization we have built, and throughout this campaign, we have seen Hillary’s message and vision resonate with voters across the Commonwealth.”
Some Republicans who had privately thrown in the towel months ago were expressing newfound optimism Thursday.
“There has been a dramatic tightening of the race across the country and the political map, including in Virginia,” said a senior party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal polling. “It’s looking extremely close, and I think what we’re seeing is ghosts of 2014 in terms of the closeness of the race.”
The official was referring to the 2014 reelection campaign of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who narrowly defeated Republican Ed Gillespie. The result was much closer than most polls had predicted.
Independent analysts were mixed on whether Virginia was back to battleground status.
Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, read a lot into the ad buys and Kaine’s visit.
“The fact that the vice-presidential nominee is coming to his home state tells you everything you need to know,” he said. “Virginia is in play, and the Clinton campaign knows it, and they’re worried.”
The vice-presidential nominee is supposed to easily deliver his or her home turf – that’s one of the benefits of picking a well-liked former governor from a swing state, he said.
“The fact he’s coming to the state the day before the election makes it very clear that the Clinton campaign is taking nothing for granted here,” Rozell said. “They see Virginia as not in the bag at this point but truly competitive.”
But David Wasserman, an editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, was not convinced.
“If Virginia is now tied, Hillary Clinton would be in deep trouble,” he said. “But so far, there isn’t convincing evidence it is. Although absentee voting has been underwhelming in heavily black localities, it’s been impressive in Northern Virginia — and, for what it’s worth, in areas with pockets of Latino voters. Trump still has enormous problems with suburban, college-educated women, who are a huge voting force in places like Fairfax, Loudoun and Henrico counties.”