New Look at the Old Dominion

Posted July 30, 2008 at 6:43pm

Virginia was already considered a key battleground in the presidential campaign but with speculation this week that Gov. Tim Kaine (D) could be on the verge of becoming Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) running mate, the Old Dominion could very soon become ground zero in Election 2008.

And the heightened focus on Virginia now has Democratic officials eagerly looking further down the ballot to races that were once considered lower-tier in discussions of the party’s opportunities in the commonwealth.

“We see Virginia very much in play not just at the presidential level, not just at the state level, but also in the Congressional races, and I think the focus that the Obama campaign is going to put on Virginia is going to be very helpful to our candidates,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in an interview Wednesday.

Along with massive media buys across the commonwealth, Obama has now opened 24 field offices in the Old Dominion with another set to open this weekend. Kaine’s elevation to the national stage next to Obama would only increase Democratic excitement in the state and create serious threats not only in the 11th district where Rep. Tom Davis (R) is retiring, but also in three other Republican-held House districts around the state.

“The level of optimism is far higher than I’ve ever seen it before,” said longtime Virginia Democratic political consultant Rhett Walker. “We’ve never had this kind of attention at the presidential level in 20-plus years. … I think we’ve seen the pendulum swinging back, especially after” the victory of Sen. Jim Webb (D) in 2006 and Kaine’s victory in 2005. “And if the governor is chosen as the VP … that’s going to increase the excitement exponentially.”

Van Hollen said he is encouraged not only because of Obama’s focus on Virginia, and the trickle-down effect it will have on other races, but also because Congressional candidates will share the ballot with former Gov. Mark Warner (D), who is running for Senate.

He noted that both Warner and Kaine were able to win the top executive job by garnering a strong vote in some areas of the commonwealth where Republicans have traditionally done very well.

Virginia Republican operatives argue that they’ve found a strong and incredibly well-funded candidate in the 11th district and that in other districts around the state, which Democrats are targeting, the power of incumbency will be a major advantage for their three GOP Members who are battle-tested and ready for a fight.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley added that GOP voters will be just as motivated as Democrats this fall in Virginia.

“With the Democrat Congress’ historically low approval ratings and the fact they continue to ignore rising gas prices, Democrats have their own set of worries in November,” Shutley said. “As the people of Virginia realize what Obama and the Democrats have in store for them, especially concerning the economy and their no-energy plans, Democrats will have to backtrack on their lofty predictions.”

Right now, the 11th continues to represent Democrats’ best pickup opportunity in Virginia. In that race, well-known Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D) is already polling well ahead of wealthy but little-known businessman Keith Fimian (R). Though the moderate Davis had relatively little trouble winning re-election during his seven terms in Congress, Kaine won the district by nearly 14 points in his 2005 gubernatorial race and Warner won the district by 12 points in his 2001 race. President Bush barely won a majority in the 11th in 2004.

Meanwhile, in the Southeast Virginia 2nd district, businessman and former foreign service officer Glenn Nye (D) has proven to be a credible challenger to Rep. Thelma Drake (R) in a district that Democrats say has only gotten better for them since Drake’s slim 5,000-vote victory in 2006. Like the 11th, the 2nd is being viewed by the DCCC as a key target and both races have been added to the committee’s “Red to Blue” fundraising and infrastructure program.

Nye campaign spokesman Rick Fromberg said Wednesday that Obama, Kaine, Warner and Webb are all personalities who bring not only a great track record but also a lot of excitement to the campaign trail.

“We’ve been very proud to campaign and work with them, and will continue to do so through November,” Fromberg said.

But the 2nd district is much more closely split than the 11th. Kaine won the district by 3 points in 2005, but Warner lost there by about 200 votes in 2001. Bush, meanwhile, won the district decisively in both 2000 and 2004.

The 2nd district, which is home to the world’s largest Naval station at Norfolk, is one of the heaviest military districts in the country, and as such, military issues tend to dominate political discussions.

Because of that, Drake’s camp says that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will excite and motivate voters more than any personality Democrats will bring to Southeast Virginia. In fact, Drake has embraced McCain so completely that two weeks ago the “McCain/Drake Victory Center” was opened in Virginia Beach as the headquarters of Republican volunteer efforts in the 2nd district.

“We’ve had incredible support both for John McCain and Thelma Drake,” said Corry Bliss, Drake’s campaign manager. “Veterans have a tremendous amount of respect for everything both Thelma Drake and John McCain have done for them.”

But while Connolly and Nye represent the top prospects in Virginia, Van Hollen said Wednesday that the candidates running against Rep. Virgil Goode (R) in the 5th district and Rep. Frank Wolf (R) in the 10th district could soon be in a position to get more attention from the national committee.

“I think that some of the other races in Virginia, they are emerging races, but they are also prime candidates, opportunities to move to Red to Blue in the days or weeks ahead,” he said.

In the south-central 5th district, attorney Tom Perriello is the Democratic nominee, and he’s been raising money steadily as well as discussing his faith-based message on the campaign trail.

As a “social justice” Catholic, Republicans say Perriello is far more liberal than his district overall and they scoff at any notion that the well-known Goode could be in any danger. But in this mostly rural district, Republicans may be less energized by McCain being at the top of the ticket than they will be in the 2nd. McCain lost the 5th district to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee by about 13 points in this year’s Republican presidential primary.

Goode said Wednesday that there will be plenty of issues to motivate his base come November.

“I think they’ll turn out because of the big difference at the top of the ticket,” Goode said. “I’m not in agreement with McCain on several issues, like immigration. … [But] when the choice is between McCain and Obama, who is the most liberal Senator in the U.S. Senate, and when they focus on the issues they’ll vote for McCain as being preferable to Obama.”

Up in Northern Virginia’s 10th district, Wolf is coming off a 16-point victory over Judy Feder (D) in 2006. However his district is changing rapidly and growing ever more Democratic. Warner lost the district by 9 points in 2001, but Kaine — who spent four years as Warner’s lieutenant governor — won the district in 2005 by 4 points.

It remains to be seen if the 10th is changing fast enough to give the Wolf a real challenge this fall. But Feder, a highly regarded Georgetown University dean, is trying again this cycle. She will certainly be hoping to ride a Democratic wave to an upset victory this year, and Obama, Warner and Kaine are all sure to factor in to that strategy.

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.