The formal entree of former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe into the 2009 governor’s race on Monday means all the players are present and accounted for now. McAuliffe, who filed papers today to run for governor, but is officially still only exploring a possible run, will compete for the Democratic nomination with Northern Virginia State Del. Brian Moran and Bath County State Sen. Creigh Deeds, who narrowly lost the 2005 attorney general race to presumptive 2009 Republican Party gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell.
Whoever gets the nomination on the D side is likely to face something of an uphill battle next fall even considering the recent voter trends in the Commonwealth that have given the last two governor’s races and the last two U.S. Senate races and the ’08 presidential race to Democrats.
“Gubermatorial and other statewide elections come down to a lot more than just party affiliation. And right now there are enormously high expectations being put on Barack Obama and the Democrats in Washington to lead the country and solve some very difficult problems. I can foresee a scenario where much of the public becomes impatient with the inability of the national government to solve problems, and the Democrats start falling out of favor again,” George Mason University political-science professor Mark Rozell said.
And that’s just one trend that could be seen as being to the advantage of Republicans or the disadvantage of Democrats, depending on the perspective. Another has to do with the certainty on the GOP side as to the top of its ticket, with McDonnell locked in at the governor slot and the sitting lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, back for another run at the #2 job in state government, in contrast to the uncertainty on the Dem ledger with a three-way race for the gubernatorial nomination and another two-way contest between wealthy Southwest Virginia businessman Jon Bowerbank and former Virginia Finance Secretary Jody Wagner for the LG spot.
The deal between McDonnell and Bolling on the Republican side means Republicans go into ’09 a unified bunch in more ways than one. “Sometimes a minority party develops what we call a minority-party mentality, which is a joint realization that they need to put aside their individual differences in the interest of trying to bolster their chances to try to gain power again,” Rozell said. “Democrats, on the other hand, have some internal infighting to get through on the way to the nomination. Imagine Terry McAuliffe dumping a ton of money into a Virginia race, and what that’s going to look like. He’s not going to play softball politics, either. The Virginia Democratic Party is going to be a hard-fought battleground,” Rozell said.
Democrats are divided, Republicans are motivated. That’s good shorthand for ’09, but as much as it might look like that the pendulum is about to shift back in their direction, it’s also important to consider why they’ve been losing in Virginia as of late. “The Republican Party in Virginia has to figure out ways to reach suburban voters,” George Mason University political expert Stephen Farnsworth said. “This has been a significant part of the explanation for why they’ve been losing elections in Virginia – why the last two governors have been Democrats and the last two Senate elections have been won by Democrats. The Republican Party used to talk about having a big tent. If today’s tent only encompasses middle-aged white conservative voters, it’s not going to win a lot of elections,” Farnsworth said.
One of the big questions of ’09 that we may not get an answer to ’til next November is … can McDonnell at the top of the ticket get more than those middle-aged white conservative voters back under the Republican tent? Another key question might have an answer a bit sooner. Christopher Newport University political-science department chair Quentin Kidd said the pressure is on Republicans in the General Assembly to adapt their tried-and-true no-taxes no-new-spending strategy to the new political reality in Virginia.
“I don’t see a Republican being able to run statewide and say, The problem is we need to cut taxes and reduce government enrichment. After this last election, that is a more difficult argument for a Republican to make,” said Kidd, who views the resounding win of Mark Warner in his U.S. Senate race with Jim Gilmore as being something of a referendum on how Virginia voters want to see leaders resolve public-policy problems in the Old Dominion.
“The Warner argument, that while it isn’t a left Democratic agenda that Virginia wants, but it also isn’t a right Republican agenda that Virginia wants, that Virginia wants something in the middle there that isn’t too partisan either way and solves problems, is what carried the day. If there isn’t a final set of nails in the coffin for the Gilmore no-taxes no-new-spending approach, I’m not sure that I’ll ever see them,” Kidd said. “The pressure that’s on Republican leaders on the House that share that same perspective is this – put on the table some practical solutions to the problems that Virginia is facing. Provide solutions for funding for transportation. Provide solutions for urban sprawl. Provide solutions for overcrowding of schools. Provide real solutions. What can government do to solve some of these problems. If the Republicans in the House can’t do that, then they risk their majority in the House, and they also risk anchoring down the Republican gubernatorial nominee in the fall,” Kidd said.
– Story by Chris Graham