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VA: Will 2012 serve as a benchmark for Virginia’s swing state status?

By   /   November 5, 2012  /   No Comments

By Carten Cordell | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA— As the 2012 election cycle winds down, Virginia voters are awaiting the results of several contentious races and the end of the tidal wave of campaign ads.

Whether the attention lavished on the Old Dominion by candidates, campaigns and the media will be a mainstay for future elections or merely an outlier derived of unique political circumstance remains to be seen.

Virginia’s status as a swing state may come down to more than the presidential election.

While Ohio, Florida and Colorado figure to remain swing states four years from now, Virginia’s status as a battleground may not be decided Tuesday, or even after, thus leaving many observers less certain of the state’s political destiny than they are of the presidential election.

“A lot of whether Virginia becomes a permanent battleground state depends on what happens this year,” said Craig Brians, associate chair of the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. “If Barack Obama wins Virginia and Tim Kaine is elected to the Senate from Virginia, then I think it is very likely that it will stay a battleground state, because that is going to be very, very close.

“If Republicans win Virginia, Democrats may just walk away, at least to a degree. That is what the question will be, How would Democrats react to (GOP victory), because Republicans are not going to give up on Virginia.”

A Republican stalwart in presidential elections since 1968, Virginia surprised many by breaking for Obama in 2008, thanks in part to great grassroots strategy from the Democrats and significant demographic shifts within the state.

Four years later, with electoral votes a rare commodity, Virginia has become the target of both Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, but has also set the stage for a tenuous Senate campaign between Kaine and Republican George Allen.

Ernest McGowan, a University of Richmond professor specializing in political behavior, campaigns and elections, said Obama’s win in 2008 kept Virginia in play as far as presidential races go, but the commonwealth has yet to produce the change on the congressional level that would signify an actual philosophical shift.

“A lot of these congressional districts, Obama won by very narrow margins, and any kind of coat-tail effect to bring in more Democrats than usual in 2008, most of those gains went back down in 2010,” he said. “It’s not really clear whether or not what happened in 2008 is just a blip on the radar screen or whether that kind of partisan volatility is going to carry on, all the way to 2016.”

Democrats picked up three seats in 2008 to hold a 6-5 House majority and both Senate seats. Two years later though, the GOP had reclaimed three House seats and controlled the state caucus, by a margin of eight to three.

McGowan said winning Virginia in a presidential race isn’t the same as controlling the congressional caucus, which represents the entire state, rather than its popular majority.

“The state as a whole is a lot different from the separate congressional districts,” he said. “It may be the case, that even though when you come together nationally, and all the votes are aggregated, it may look like President Obama won, but if eight out of the 11 congressional districts are held by Republicans, where does that disconnect come from?

“Then you have to start asking yourself whether or not national politics matter in a different way than local politics.”

But Mike Thompson, chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy a non-partisan think tank, said the changing demographic growth of the state could change the political landscape for good, especially if Tuesday’s race is a nail biter.

“If Virginia is, indeed, a close state Tuesday, it will be a state that will continue to be high on the priority list of any presidential candidate,” he said. “With the change of the population mix in Virginia, it could stay in play for a long time.”

Email Carten Cordell at carten@watchdogvirginia.org

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