The Virginia state Senate majority is on the line today as voters go to the polls across the state, but both parties will also be watching for clues that could help them in 2012.
Virginia will be a presidential and U.S. Senate battleground next year, as President Barack Obama looks to win the state a second time and former Govs. Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R) duke it out for the open Senate seat.
Obama’s organization has been up and running in the state for months, and state Democratic Party Chairman Brian Moran said Sunday that the campaign has been very helpful to the party’s efforts this year. Kaine and Allen have crisscrossed the state since the summer on behalf of state legislative and local candidates.
“This will set the trend for next year’s election, and they realize 2012 is a pivotal year ... and Virginia’s going to be in the eye of the political storm for the U.S. Senate and the presidential race,” Allen said by phone from the campaign trail Monday.
Republicans already hold the governor’s mansion and the state House. Winning the state Senate would give them total control and also begin an immediate push to pass a Congressional redistricting map that seeks to keep the delegation’s current 8-3 Republican majority in place for the next 10 years.
There are competitive elections across the state from suburban and exurban Northern Virginia down to Hampton Roads and in Southwest coal country, all areas that both parties will be battling over in 2012. The independent voters in the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and Richmond have a history of turning statewide elections, so the campaigns will look there for signs of positive momentum.
A source close to the Allen campaign said they’ll be looking into the results to find areas where they believe they can pick up pockets of voters that can help offset big Democratic vote totals in the inner suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Both Kaine and Allen said hitting the trail for candidates over the past several months has given them the opportunity to engage with voters already tuned in to elections.
Allen noted that supporters often come up to him at events for local and state legislative candidates and say they want to help him next year. Concluding his months-long statewide tour, Allen was scheduled to appear at a phone bank for a state Senate candidate in Fredericksburg on Monday night.
Kaine appeared in mid-election-season form during his 12-minute stump speech at a get-out-the-vote rally Sunday at a newly developed strip mall in Loudoun County. He went through the list of state candidates standing behind him — their bios rolling off his tongue with ease — and why it was essential that Democrats hold their last line of defense against total Republican control in Richmond.
Looking out into a crowd of about 100, Kaine remarked about the turnout and said with a smile, “Will you come to some more events with me over the next year?”
“I will have done 50-plus events for candidates from the middle of summer through Tuesday — so yeah, you learn a lot along the way,” Kaine said after the event. “There will be some changes next year. Sometimes an election goes one way one year, and then the next, they go differently. We see that. But I do think we’ll learn something about Virginians’ desire for balance.”
Democrats in the state are coming off two straight years of losses, including a GOP sweep of statewide offices in 2009 and a pickup of three Congressional seats in 2010. Party members at Sunday’s rally were cognizant of the possibility of losing the state Senate but remained cautiously optimistic they could hold on.
The source close to Allen’s campaign said the state Senate elections have offered “very valuable face time” with voters and were something the campaign built into its strategy this year. The source also said he’ll look at Tuesday’s results in the context of the last few elections.
“Really, the story line is whether what we saw in 2010 — built off 2009 — is there, remnants of that momentum still there,” he said. “What we’ve seen is [that] there is.”
Joining Kaine at Sunday’s event were Sen. Jim Webb — whom he is running to succeed — and former Rep. Tom Perriello, who lost his Charlottesville-based seat last year. It was part of more than a dozen events featuring the state’s top Democrats during the past four days along the I-81 corridor, east on I-66 toward Washington, D.C., and then south along I-95.
Along with Sen. Mark Warner (D) and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D), they all also appeared at a rally Monday at George Mason University in Fairfax to help wake up voters about the state’s “off-off-year” elections, as they were called Sunday.
Webb made headlines last week for hesitating when asked if he would campaign for the president next year. But he was charged up on Sunday, vociferously denouncing a Halloween-themed mailer from the Loudoun County Republican Party that portrayed a zombie-looking Obama with a bullet hole in his head.
That may have been one of the few mail pieces in the state that featured the president. Republicans have taken note of the lack of Democratic candidates that have aligned themselves at all with Obama.
Far more prevalent are Democratic mail pieces featuring a Democrat embracing Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who has an approval rating above 60 percent. That includes state Sen. George Barker (D) in Fairfax and Prince William counties, whose mail included such a picture along with a quote attributed to McDonnell that read, “I’ve enjoyed working with you on technology and education issues.”
According to the state GOP, that message came off a birthday card, something McDonnell sends to all state legislators.
State Sen. Phillip Puckett (D), another vulnerable incumbent, went so far as to say he would not vote for Obama next year. But that hasn’t stopped the Republican State Leadership Committee from spending $166,000 on TV ads against him, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. One ad featured cutouts of Puckett and Obama next to each other for the entire 30 seconds.
Perriello, who said he was not running for office, played down any implications today’s elections will have next year.
“Despite the Republican attempts to make this a national election, people understand the difference with local and state elections,” he said. “In this case, it’s really a question about the direction Richmond is going to take.”
Moran, the state party chairman and brother of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), agreed.
“Next year’s race is going to be competitive regardless of what happens on Tuesday,” he said. “But, obviously, both of them have been working very hard on behalf of their party candidates.”