This post is the inaugural post on several pieces that will examine the dynamics, demographics and individual variables of several Senate races that many political handicappers consider second tier opportunities for the GOP. While this post will focus specifically on Virginia, follow-up posts will focus on open seat Senate races in Iowa and Michigan and a possible marquee match-up in New Hampshire. Examinations of individual gubernatorial races will follow after the New Year.
Virginia has a rich electoral history of being ruby red. That is until 2006 at least. Republicans dominated the state at the Presidential level between 1968 and 2004. Even when Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were carrying parts of the South, Virginia was maintaining its Republican allegiance. But the new millennium has seen many changes to the state; political, demographic and cultural. While George Bush carried the state in 2000 and 2004 he struggled in NoVA (the Democratic base in the state). In 2008 with a subpar Presidential nominee, John McCain, Republicans were crushed in the state. Mitt Romney did slightly better in the state in 2012 but still lost fairly easily. Democratic victories statewide and their dominance in the North can be attributed to a cultural shift to supporting abortion and gay marriage and demographically as the region as become more diverse and younger.
Recent Republican losses however do not mean the state is solidly blue. Rather it could be considered a solid shade of purple. Democrats have won the last several federal statewide races (2006 Senate, 2008 Senate and President, and 2012 President and Senate) but they were utterly obliterated in the 2009 gubernatorial and legislative races. Indeed, despite Democrats capturing all three of the state’s executive offices in 2013 for the first time in fifty years they gained a mere one seat in the state assembly (state senate terms are four years and will be next held in 2015). Also, despite Democratic wins in 2012 the GOP did not lose a single Congressional district in the state in the same year.
This is the political environment former Governor and freshman Senator Mark Warner enters as he runs for a second term. Warner boasts some of the best approval ratings of a sitting Senator in the country. This explains why few big name Republicans have opted to challenge him. Warner won the Governorship in 2001 against a subpar GOP challenger as backlash against George Bush’s election drove Democrats to the polls in Fairfax County. In fact, Fairfax alone gave Warner his margin of victory. Warner ran for Senate in 2008 against former GOP Governor Jim Gilmore. Gilmore ran a lackluster campaign and was crushed 65%-33%.
The Democratic path to victory in Virginia, at least in statewide federal races, has been constant since 2006. Hold down increasingly large GOP margins in Southern Virginia and the Tidewater area while racking up huge margins in Democratic Arlington and Fairfax Counties. Additionally, winning Loudoun and Prince William Counties are a must as a loss in either suggests Democratic struggles elsewhere in NoVa and anemic turnout across the state.
In the political environment that prevailed two months ago Republicans figured they had no shot at this seat. The government shutdown wounded the GOP nationwide butparticularly in Virginia. Some Republican strategists blame their gubernatorial loss on the shutdown. Yet two months later the government shutdown is a dim memory and Obamacare is the flavor de jour of politics. It is a flavor distinctly to the liking of Republicans and disgust of Democrats.
Republicans are increasingly optimistic that they can pin the law around Warner’s neck, he did vote for the law after-all, and finally find a way to connect with suburban NoVA voters. Democrats counter though that Republicans are overly optimistic considering Warner’s popularity and deep connections within the business community. Yet, Republicans have never had such a weapon to wield against an incumbent Democrat.
Few Republicans have announced to challenge Warner but the state party is waiting on former Virginia GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie. Gillespie is sure to raise enough cash to be competitive but he is an untested candidate. State Convention Republicans may also not be endeared to him and go with a more Tea Party type candidate. Furthermore, Republicans already have many enticing first tier races to fight for suggesting third party spending may not benefit Gillespie substantially. Likely, if this seat becomes in play it suggests Democrats are already set to lose the Senate and may target these races to make sure they are a substantial minority in 2015. Still, Gillespie could follow the route of former Democratic Governor, DNC Chair and now freshman Senator Tim Kaine in his bid.
Kaine used Obama’s coattails to win his Senate seat in 2012 against former GOP Governor and Senator Tim Allen. Following the script of the President Kaine won every county Obama won and lost every county the President lost. The War on Women campaign theme Democrats used in 2012 and 2013 to target single women, suburban voters resonated against stalwart social conservatives like Allen and Cuccinelli. It might not against Gillespie.
Gillespie does not have a record on abortion or gay marriage. If he is careful and sticks to script on the economy and healthcare he could make Warner fight on unpopular political ground; spending, Obamacare and the sluggish economy. Warner’s popularity surely only extends so far.
Virginia is surely a second tier race for the GOP. Unless Gillespie gets in it could soon become even less and the GOP might cede the seat to Democrats yet again. Both Michigan and Iowa, open seat races, offer the GOP better opportunities in second tier opportunities as does New Hampshire. But Republicans should keep in mind two important facets of the 2013 gubernatorial race. Despite Republicans losses the party won the 18-24 demographic for the first time in well over a decade (with a subpar candidate running). Secondly, married suburban women supported Cuccinelli by a bigger margin than they did either Allen or Romney in 2012 (McAuliffe’s margins can be attributed to his huge margins among 30-39 year olds and single women). So while Virginia might look like a state turning from purple to blue due to NoVA there may be a counterbalancing act taking place among older, better established and the youngest voters. Time will tell but if Gillespie is to win he will certainly need this phenomenon to continue.