This is a guest post by Richard Benedetto.
Virginia’s 2011 state legislative election results Tuesday signify one thing: Virginia will continue to be a battleground state in the 2012 presidential race, but with the Republicans having a slight edge.
Republicans apparently succeeded, pending a recount, in winning control of the state Senate from the Democrats, but not by as big a margin as some expected. Stronger-than-predicted showings by incumbent Democrats in Northern Virginia’s Washington suburbs, fueled by aggressive negative campaigns against their Republican opponents, helped stave off a narrative that would have said President Obama should write off Virginia and its 13 electoral votes next year.
Instead, a Washington Post headline on Wednesday more charitably said, “Virginia Races Show a Tougher Landscape for Obama in 2012.”
How tough a landscape? Let’s take a closer look. In 2008, Obama won Virginia over Republican Sen. John McCain by a 53-46 percent margin. It marked the first time a Democratic presidential candidate carried Virginia since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson swamped Barry Goldwater. And it was no fluke. Republican strongholds such as North Carolina and Indiana also slid into the Obama column.
However, that was three years ago when Obama voters, tired of eight years of George W. Bush, were starry-eyed with the belief in Obama’s well-articulated message of hope and change. Those stars have all but disappeared, clouded over by a stagnant economy and a Washington culture that apparently continues to operate no different than it did under the previous administration. Obama can no longer campaign on the promise of a brighter future. He is stuck defending his stewardship, blaming Republicans for his problems and pleading for patience until things get better
The puzzle of politically figuring out Virginia and the way it voted this year is a tale of two states:
Northern Virginia, largely the Washington suburbs, has become increasingly Democratic in recent years as younger voters, and many former District of Columbia singles now raising families have moved in. Moreover, the economy there is much better than most of the nation. Couple that with the fact that many Northern Virginia residents work for the federal government, or have jobs that largely depend on federal government contracts, and it’s easier to understand why the Democratic vote Tuesday was better than expected.
Add to that the fact that Democrats redrew the Senate district lines this year to give them a favorable edge, and you have a second factor in the better Democratic showing in the Senate races.
But when you look to the southern and more-rural parts of the state where the slumping economy is a lot like other parts of the country, the Republican vote was much stronger. Although much of the political discussion in the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote has focused on the Senate, the GOP won 66 Virginia House of Delegates seats. Many of those wins came in the southwestern and southern parts of the state, giving Republicans a two-thirds House majority, their largest ever.
In sum, with a Republican governor in Bob McDonnell, the GOP is poised to have total control of Virginia’s state government as Obama prepares to campaign there. That’s hardly friendly territory.
There is one more Virginia wrinkle that could prove a problem for the president as he seeks to retake Richmond: O’Donnell, a popular governor with a 62 percent job-approval rating, is being mentioned as a possible Republican vice-presidential candidate. If he is on the ticket, Obama’s “tougher landscape” could become an Everest climb. If not, the president is still going to have to fight for Virginia with money, time and manpower.
Richard Benedetto is an adjunct professor in the School of Communication. He is a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA TODAY and political columnist for Gannett News Service. He has been reporting on local, state and national government and politics for nearly 40 years and continues to write political commentary for publications such as Politico.