Virginia Election Offers Republicans a Chance to Enact an Agenda, Set Examples for 2012

"What party are you affiliated with?" a woman asked Mickey Chohany recently as he campaigned in the Virginia Senate's 1 st District. It wasn't so much a question as an accusation. Chohany, a restaurateur running for a seat in Virginia's Hampton Roads area, felt sure the woman didn't want to hear that he's Republican (though he is), and she didn't seem any more friendly to Democrats. He decided the best option was to create a new political movement. "Ma'am," Chohany said, "I'm in the get-it-done party."

Picking up on similar clues, incumbent John Miller, Chohany's Democratic opponent, points out that he formed a bipartisan caucus in the state Senate. Miller says he contrasts his style with "the folks in Washington who shout at each other." The election isn't until November, but from the rhetoric on the campaign trail, it's already clear that self-proclaimed members of the get-it-done party have won a landslide and that everything associated with Washington, D.C. is a loser.

But get-it-done rhetoric not withstanding, the differences between Republicans and Democrats in Virginia are clear — and much like the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the nation's capital. In fact, if you want a preview of the elections that will determine control of Washington, the states and the country next year, the best place to look in 2011 is at the 40 contests for the Virginia Senate. The messages echo the national parties, with Virginia Democrats warning of Republican extremism and Republicans emphasizing lower taxes and smaller government. The crucial turf is also the same: places that voted for Democrats in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but for Republicans in 2009 and 2010.

There's more at stake in Virginia this fall, though, than just foreshadowing. Republicans comfortably control the Virginia House of Delegates. They also control the governorship. As a result, Democrats view their 22-to-18 Senate majority as the last line of defense. Whether Republicans can take the Senate will go a long way toward determining the prospects of Bob McDonnell, the state's popular and ambitious governor.

The McDonnell factor

One of the big reasons to think McDonnell will get the Republican Senate majority he's hoping for is the governor himself. McDonnell has helped Republicans to a large advantage in campaign cash. He's also a potentially powerful force on the campaign trail, thanks to approval ratings that have exceeded 60 percent.

McDonnell is popular because Virginia's unemployment rate is only 6.1 percent and has dropped a percentage point since he took office. Republicans say that without raising taxes, he's turned a large budget shortfall into a large budget surplus. Democrats dismiss the surplus as a product of budget gimmicks such as failing to make recommended payments into the state pension system.

Virginia Republicans plan to contrast their record with the Obama administration's record. Their case is that lower taxes and less spending are the solution to the country's problems and that their successes in Virginia prove it. "If you like the job we've done over the last two years," says Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, "you need to give us a team to let us do even more."

Democrats argue that Republicans are more interested in ideological crusades than in helping the economy. They're pointing to one Republican Senate candidate who argued that Social Security should be abolished and another who mailed plastic fetuses to legislators to persuade them to oppose abortion. In this way, the Democratic campaigns in Virginia are testing how much traction the party can get by presenting their opponents as extremists. "If they get control of the Senate, everything that passed in Mississippi, Alabama and Arizona will pass here," says Richard Saslaw, the Senate Democratic Leader. "These races strictly have to do with the Tea Party versus sanity."

A new map

As is the case in any election, though, who wins and loses in Virginia in November will have as much to do with the political map as it does with political messages. On the map, Republicans appear to have an excellent chance to win back the Virginia Senate.

McDonnell carried 29 of the 40 Senate districts when he was elected in 2009. Republicans need to net only two seats to achieve a 20-to-20 tie and functional supremacy, since Bolling would serve as a tie-breaking vote.

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15 swing districts chart

Republicans could plausibly win as many as 10 or 12 seats held by Democrats, including two where McDonnell won more than 60 percent of the vote in 2009. Democratic incumbents face tough races in almost every corner of the state: in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia, in the rural hills of the central Piedmont region, in military-centered Hampton Roads, in struggling Southside and in the Southwestern coal country. Meanwhile, only three Republican-held seats appear in any jeopardy and all three of them are on decidedly Republican turf.

Despite those obstacles, Democrats can't be counted out. A good place to see why is in District 1, where Miller and Cholany are the opponents. In 2007, everything fell into place for Democrat Miller. The TV-reporter-turned-candidate benefitted from divided opposition — the Republican incumbent was ousted in a primary — and a motivated Democratic Party in the waning days of the unpopular Bush administration. But Miller still won by only 700 votes because the area was so strongly Republican.

That would seem to bode poorly for him now, except Miller isn't running in the same district as four years ago. Lawmakers redrew all the state's political lines in 2011 in the once-a-decade redistricting process. To craft a deal both sides would accept, each party was allowed to draw favorable maps for the chamber where it already had a majority — Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate. Miller's new district includes the left-leaning college town of Williamsburg, and more black voters. He figures that if won in a district where George W. Bush took more than 60 percent of the vote in 2004, he can win where Barack Obama won 57 percent in 2008.

Miller's situation is typical. Many of the Democratic incumbents are running in difficult districts, but many of them have prevailed in even tougher ones before. These are swing districts in what may well be the nation's consummate swing state — Obama won 53 percent of the vote in Virginia and 53 percent nationwide in 2008. Eleven of the 40 districts on the new Senate map voted for Obama in 2008, then turned around just a year later and voted for McDonnell.

Republicans are hopeful voters aren't ready to swing back. "In 2008, being a Republican was about as popular as having H1N1," Bolling says. "It's a very different political environment today." But with the public generally frustrated at both parties in Washington, it's hard to tell where the national mood is headed.

Pushing an agenda

What's more clear is that the results November 8 will go a long way toward determining what happens in Virginia in the next two years.

The state has experienced divided government ever since Democrat Mark Warner was elected governor 10 years ago. Meanwhile, the Virginia legislature has gradually become more ideologically rigid, with Democrats more liberal and Republicans more conservative. That means that — despite occasional noteworthy compromises — both parties have agendas that seem almost certain to be blocked until the day one of them finally wins  both houses of the legislature and the governorship at the same time.

For McDonnell, says Phil Cox, who directs the governor's political action committee, the agenda includes a new school policy and a reorganization of Virginia's state government. Democrats, though, have other ideas. Earlier this year, the Senate killed a McDonnell-backed bill that would have given tax credits to companies that fund private school vouchers. A variety of other conservative causes — from expanded immigration enforcement to pension changes for state workers to legalization of guns on college campuses — also died in the Senate.

Republican legislators are likely to keep fighting for those causes whether or not their party takes the Senate, but they have only two years to enlist McDonnell as an ally. Virginia governors can't seek reelection under the state's unique one-term limit. McDonnell did celebrate a major victory earlier this year, when the legislature passed his plan to accelerate transportation spending. Still, like many Virginia governors before him, he could find his time in office slipping away without his achieving more than a small portion of the agenda he started with — unless Virginians elect a Republican Senate. "Bob McDonnell has no major legislative accomplishments that are long-term," says Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. "He has one more shot."


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