By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — A handful of counties are likely to determine the outcome of the presidential election in Virginia.
These “battleground” enclaves flipped for Barack Obama in 2008 and are leaning his way again this year, but the Democrat’s margin of victory appears to be shrinking, political observers and pollsters say.
That could mean electoral success for Republican Mitt Romney.
“If Romney wins Loudoun, he can win the state,” says Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Obama carried Loudoun, 54-45, along with neighboring suburban and exurban centers in Northern Virginia.
Bill Card, chairman of Prince William County Republican Party, recalled that GOP voters were so disheartened they didn’t bother going to the polls after mid-morning.
“A sense of inevitability suppressed our vote,” Card said. Obama racked up a 58 percent majority there.
But the landscape in these battleground counties is taking a different shape this year.
“I’ve been walking neighborhoods and getting an entirely different reception when they hear you’re from the GOP,” Card told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
Even in Northern Virginia, which has been largely resistant to the nation’s economic doldrums, voters aren’t necessarily happy with what’s happened the past four years.
Fairfax’s longtime representative, Democrat Rep. Gerry Connolly, held onto his seat by a scant 0.5 percentage points.
“We’re not so far gone that we can’t elect a Republican,” said Richard McCarty, a representative on the GOP’s 11th Congressional District Committee. “Romney’s chances are much better than McCain’s because he’s sufficiently funded and competing aggressively here.”
Mark Sell, chairman of the Loudoun County Republican Party, says his group has seen a “steady increase” in membership since 2009.
What’s more, Sell said, the local party is “gathering attorneys and training poll workers” to ensure a clean vote in November.
“We’re taking voter fraud seriously and we’re prepared,” he told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
John Jaggers, director of operations for the Loudoun-based Northern Virginia Tea Party, said the enthusiasm level has swung to Republicans in the region.
“You’re lucky to find 50 people at a Democratic meeting here. You’re stunned if less than 100 Republicans show up for their’s,” he said.
Calling McCain “the second most hated politician in America,” Jaggers isn’t entirely enamored of Romney, but, he adds, “We know what he is and what he is not.
“He secured the GOP vote before (Supreme Court Chief Justice) John Roberts made it a lock” with the decision upholding much of Obamacare.
The opposite end of Virginia’s so-called “urban crescent” — Hampton Roads — will still go Democratic, but Republicans are gearing up to fight for votes in ways they didn’t in 2008.
For starters, Ross Grogg, chairman of the Virginia Beach Young Republicans, says party members simply like U.S. Senate candidate George Allen better than 2008 party nominee Jim Gilmore. And that, he reasons, will help the top of the ticket.
“There was no coordinated campaign in 2008. This year there is,” Grogg says.
Norfolk remains rabidly Democratic, but other Hampton Roads localities, including Chesapeake and York County, could be leading indicators of a GOP resurgence this fall.
In the central part of the state, the northern Richmond suburb of Henrico County is shaping up as another crucial battleground. A longtime GOP stronghold, it went Democratic with 53 percent of vote in 2008.
“It’s become a more diverse county with blacks and Hispanics. If Obama wins there again, he’s got a shot at winning the state,” Skelley said.
But with Republicans holding the governor’s office, wielding effective control of the General Assembly and expected to retain their 8-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, Skelley says, “Outside the urban crescent, Democrats are in a lot of trouble.”
Fittingly the home to several major Civil War battles, the region’s voters ousted a Democratic state senator in favor of Republican Bryce Reeves last year.
In 2008, McCain eked out a win in the Spotsylvania-Fredericksburg area, which lies at the southern fringe of the D.C.-Northern Virginia Metropolitan Area, 32,023-31,052.
From true-blue Charlottesville, Skelley suggests Romney must improve on that margin if he has any hope of winning the state. “There is no indication the state is getting redder.”
“How much more Republican can the rural areas get?” he asks. “If anything, the state is getting more purple.”
Skelley suggests both sides have much educating and cajoling to do well in the battleground counties.
In the past four months, the state Republican Party says it has contacted about one in six voting-age residents — about 1 million Virginians — on Romney’s behalf.
“Romney has to close the margins in Northern Virginia,” Skelley said.
“Those endless subdivisions and long commutes along I-66 make people insular. They may be fairly centrist in their political leanings, but he doesn’t have it locked down.”