The Top Story by Chris Graham
The Shenandoah Valley is among the reddest parts of red-state America. Tim Russert, God rest his soul, needed a brighter shade for us to get across just how red we are.
George W. Bush got 74.4 percent of the vote in Augusta County and Rockingham County in 2004, and even won the supposedly more liberal-leaning cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro by safe double-digit-plus margins.
So what is it that has Democrats in the Central Shenandoah Valley talking openly about painting the Valley blue in ’08?
You mean, aside from the numbers?
“It’s still going to be a challenge. But I think what people want is they’re going to want people that are going to get results. More and more, Republicans are willing to take a chance on a Democrat, and vice versa, if you feel that somebody’s going to actually produce. Enough of this in-your-face rhetoric, enough of the slash-and-burn politics, enough about telling you why the other guys are always bad. Tell me what you’re going to do to help my life here,” said Mark Warner, a former Virginia governor who is expected to lead the charge for Democrats in the Valley this November with his campaign for the United States Senate that has him ahead of another former governor, Jim Gilmore, by more than 20 points statewide and by a surprisingly similar margin in Western Virginia.
But it’s not just Warner who has caught the attention of voters in Western Virginia. There were actually more votes cast in the Feb. 12 presidential primaries in the Central Shenandoah Valley for Democratic Party candidates than for Republican candidates – this in spite of the fact that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee made a campaign stop in Weyers Cave on the border of Augusta and Rockingham on the eve of the primary and ran surprisingly well here locally and across the Old Dominion.
An analysis of turnout numbers from the February primaries reveals that there were 16,516 votes cast in the Central Shenandoah localities of Augusta, Rockingham, Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, compared to 15,839 votes cast in the GOP primaries in the same. The data would suggest that the Valley is ripe for the picking in the fall, making the news that the Barack Obama presidential effort is going to campaign hard here, with the grand opening of a campaign headquarters in Harrisonburg over the weekend and the pending opening of headquarters in Staunton and Waynesboro in the coming weeks, much less circumspect than it might have appeared at first glance.
“We are going to compete everywhere in the Commonwealth, from corner to corner. And one of the ways we feel we can best campaign is by having offices spread all over the state. What that will provide local supporters and activists is an opportunity to have a platform to organize their community,” said Mitch Stewart, who is heading up the Obama campaign’s Virginia efforts, at the Harrisonburg headquarters grand opening on Saturday.
“We hope that they’ll use this as their office, come in here, invite people to come in from their neighborhood to learn more about Sen. Obama and get involved. What we’ve found throughout this campaign is that providing access to the campaign is a big part of its success. We want to provide as much access to voters in Virginia as we can,” Stewart said.
Sixth District Democratic Party congressional nominee Sam Rasoul was on hand for the Obama Harrisonburg grand opening. Rasoul has been taking his campaign for the Sixth District seat representing the Sixth to the streets, and he’s finding that “more people here are ready to listen than ever before” to his moderate Democrat message.
“People are looking for answers, and it doesn’t matter what their party affiliation is. People are looking for answers, and they are happy to be brought answers on energy, answers on how we can be rid of the lobbyists and special interests and get the kinds of systemic reforms that we’ve been pushing for,” Rasoul said.
“It’s more about framing the discussion where we’re looking for solutions rather than putting ourselves in partisan camps and really trying to figure out what’s best for America. I think that even when we disagree, they at least appreciate that I’m trying to do what I believe is best and trying to advocate for that instead of just trying to take a hard line as far as the party is concerned,” Rasoul said.
What Rasoul hints to there is that it’s still not necessarily the case that a hardcore traditional liberal Democrat could be expected to do well in the Valley, changing political times in this neck of the woods or not. Rasoul is as blue-dog as they come, and Warner made his name as a committed fiscal conservative who focused almost the entirety of his energies as governor on implementing sound management principles that had seemed to be lacking in his Republican predecessors George Allen and Jim Gilmore.
“People are starting to see the truth. The Republicans that have run for office are good at getting elected, but they don’t know how to govern, and they’ve put the country in a world of hurt, and our grandchildren are going to be paying the bills for this. And people recognize that. And it’s not just Democrats. It’s people looking for good leadership,” said Lowell Fulk, a Rockingham County Democrat who made two strong if unsuccessful runs at the 26th House District seat in the House of Delegates that represents Harrisonburg and a wide swath of Rockingham County in Richmond.
Even in defeat, Fulk’s centrist campaigns laid out the blueprint for how Democrats can build a winning coalition in the Central Shenandoah Valley, tapping into the conservatism-with-an-eye-to-the-future mantra of his political mentor, Warner, to reach across party lines and attract independents and moderate Republicans fed up with the direction that the Grover Norquist all-government-is-bad ultraconservatives were taking their party.
“Republicans are reluctant on their side of things. They’re not exactly energized about their candidates. So we have Republicans almost apologizing for their candidates, and the Democrats are energized about their candidates. And that creates an interesting backdrop for change,” said Riley Murray, an Augusta County-based blogger and regular contributor to The Huffington Post.
Murray makes an important point about all the talk about painting the Valley blue. It doesn’t really matter in the end if Democrats win the Central Shenandoah Valley outright as long as they compete and compete well.
“One, this will force Republicans to expend more of their resources in this part of the state than they are used to. And two, if you look at Jim Webb’s campaign in 2006, and look at fundamentally why he won, it was because he did adequately well in the western part of the state, and dominated Northern Virginia. Same pattern here. I think Obama, I think Rasoul, Warner, they’re all going to do so well downstate that the metropolitan areas are going to push us over the top. I think there’s a good opportunity for us this year,” Murray said.
The opportunity is there, but translating that opportunity into success is going to take some elbow grease.
“We have a lot to build on, and that’s a start,” Augusta County Democratic Committee chair Tom Long said.
“Mark Warner is very popular with Democrats. He’s a winner, we know he’s a winner. And then added to that is Barack Obama, who has brought in his brand of enthusiasm and energy and young people. And Sam Rasoul is doing the same kinds of things – energizing people who have never been energized about politics before,” Long said.
“I can remember going to Augusta County Democratic Committee meetings with three other people. And now we can generally fill the room. And people are excited. We’re not even to the excitement part yet, and people are excited. Wait ’til we get to September,” Long said.
“Mark Warner will carry the Valley, carry areas that have been Republican for a long time. Warner will lead the ticket, and that will help candidates like Barack Obama and Sam Rasoul and other congressional districts. It’s going to be a very good year for Virginia Democrats,” Long said.