Analysis: We won’t know how the Old Dominion will vote in the presidential election until it happens
Election Day 2011 will determine which party controls the two houses of the Virginia General Assembly. Republicans hope they can retake the state Senate, where the Democrats won control in 2007 and hold a 22-18 majority. If they do, it would be the first time in a decade the party would be in full control of the state’s government.
State legislative elections rarely get the media attention or national party assistance that federal elections receive. This is especially true when the election occurs in an odd-numbered year, as is this case this year, because there are no federal elections on the ballot. But this year, both national parties have become fixtures in the Old Dominion. The state’s campaign trail has become the battlefield for an early proxy war the GOP hopes —and Democrats fear — may foreshadow the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.
For Va. Dems, an abrupt end to winning streak
When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Virginia Democrats were nearing the close of a long winning streak. They won the governorship two consecutive times and took control of the state Senate in 2007, eight years after they lost it for the first time since Reconstruction. They held six of the state’s 11 congressional seats and both U.S. Senate seats. Obama was the first Democrat to win the state’s electoral votes since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964.
By November 2009, the Democrats’ winning streak came to an abrupt end when state Attorney Gen. Bob McDonnell (R) won the governor’s race over state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) by more than 17 percentage points. Three of the state’s Democratic congressmen lost their re-election bids the next year, while Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) won a second term by just 981 votes.
Old Dominion a ‘ground zero’ state in 2012
Kathy Kiely, managing editor for politics at National Journal, told the Observer’s staff recently that Virginia will be among the cadre of “ground zero states” next year. Obama may well need the state and its 13 electoral votes to come in for him if he’s in a tight race against the eventual Republican presidential nominee.
Meanwhile, former governor and Democratic National Committee Chair Tim Kaine (D) will compete with the eventual GOP nominee, for retiring Sen. Jim Webb’s (D) seat. The major candidates competing for the nomination of the Republican Party are former Sen. George Allen and Jamie Radtke, former head of the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots. Democrats will need to hold onto that seat if they hope to maintain control of the U.S. Senate, where they have a 53-47 majority.
Parties will use 2011 results to affect momentum
So how does political control of the Virginia state Senate translate into a foreshadowing of the 2012 election? Tuesday’s results will affect how the media and political observers perceive the parties’ relative momentum as the presidential primaries draw closer. If the Republicans win control, they may claim they are erasing Democratic gains in one of that party’s 2008 trophy states. If the Democrats keep control, they can claim they have “stopped the bleeding” — that swing voters will still vote for their candidates, or at least give them a second chance.
Prospects that there will be low voter turnout in Virginia — The Washington Post speculated it could hover around 33 percent — makes it difficult to predict who will end up with the upper hand in the state Senate at the end of Election Day. Each candidate’s voter-turnout operation may determine the winner in some races, as will voters’ enthusiasm — or a lack thereof — for a particular candidate.
The results of this year’s election may be a harbinger of things to come in Virginia, but it’s just as likely to not. Yes, McDonnell’s 2009 win was succeeded by his party gaining three of the state’s U.S. House seats the next year. But in 2002, the year after Sen. Mark Warner (D) won the state governor’s race, Democrats failed to oust Sen. John Warner (R) or any of the state’s eight Republican congressmen.
No matter what happens Tuesday, we won’t officially know how Virginia will vote for president until Nov. 6, 2012 — Election Day.