Chris Graham: Painting the Valley blue

Local Democrats were quite active on the political scene four years ago, and their hard work paid off.

Barack Obama won a majority in Staunton, got 44 percent of the vote in Waynesboro (up 15 percent from John Kerry’s showing in the River City in 2004), and in Augusta County, well, Augusta County is still Augusta County.

(The county was one of a handful of locales in Virginia to give a majority to Republican Senate candidate Jim Gilmore in his race with landslide winner Mark Warner. Yeah.)

All told, Obama got just short of 37 percent of the vote in the region in ’08, an eight-point improvement over Kerry in ’04, translating to about 5,600 extra votes for Obama.

In a state that the Democrat ended up winning by 234,000 votes overall, those 5,600 votes are roughly 2 percent of the margin of victory. Not bad for a part of the state so red it even gives a centrist like Warner a hard time.

As to this year, though, well … I don’t get the sense that local Democrats are as energized as they were four years ago. Efforts to pull off a big fund-raiser along the lines of the Paint the Valley Blue event that drew around 500 people to the Frontier Culture Museum aren’t going well, I’m hearing.

So there’s that, and then there’s the relative lack of presence of Senate candidate Tim Kaine on the Valley campaign trail. The former governor is held in generally high esteem by local Dems, but it’s hard to get too excited when you only see your candidate every so often.

And then there’s Andy Schmookler, the congressional candidate who is a sort of polar opposite from the 2008 Sixth District nominee, Sam Rasoul, a young (mid-20s) businessman who retail-politicked for two years and did about as well as a Democrat can do in the Sixth, scoring in the mid-30s against Republican Bob Goodlatte. Where Rasoul was perceived as too young by some, Schmookler is seasoned; where Rasoul is a businessman, Schmookler comes from academia; and where Rasoul had the savvy to campaign from as close to the center line politically as is possible for a Democrat, Schmookler is an unabashed progressive.

Which is to say, Schmookler has the uphill battle of all uphill battles facing him this summer and this fall.

The Obama campaign seems to be ramping up locally as it did four years ago. What struck me then as a Democratic Party committeeman (full disclosure: I was the chair of the Waynesboro Democratic Committee from 2008-2010) was that the Obama campaign actually wanted to assign campaign workers to focus specifically on Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County. We had two for our region, which is two more than John Kerry had in the entire state of Virginia in the fall of 2004.

Obama famously changed the paradigm for Democratic candidates in 2008 by daring to challenge Republicans in places where they hadn’t been challenged in years. The focus on little ol’ Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County was part and parcel to that effort.

The campaign structure will be there again. The jury is still out as to where the volunteers might be tihs summer and this fall. And it’s getting close to gut-check time.

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