Northern Va. Could Be Pivotal for Romney, Obama

Northern Va. Could Be Pivotal for Romney, Obama

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 19, 2012

LEESBURG, Va. -- Barack Obama made history in Virginia four years ago by capitalizing on a demographic shift in the northern part of the state to become the first Democrat to win the commonwealth in four decades. His victory highlighted what was touted as the Old Dominion’s new politics. Then-Gov. Tim Kaine declared on the day after the election, “Old Virginny is dead!”

But just a year later, Bob McDonnell and a slate of Republicans swept into office, and now voters will decide the rubber match.

“Old Virginny” may indeed be dead, but what replaces it is still an open question. Mitt Romney is running even with Obama (the RCP Average shows the race tied) and the breeze appears to be in Democrats’ faces instead of at their backs, particularly as recent polls show a narrowing nationwide gender gap. The Obama camp raised eyebrows this week when it insisted Virginia remains part of its electoral calculus.

A large part of that calculus involves building upon Obama’s prior success in Northern Virginia. But doing so is no sure bet. Both candidates are looking for comfort in that region, where a handful of rapidly growing, diverse -- and fickle -- counties outside the Washington, D.C., Beltway could determine the race’s outcome in the state.

As the Election Day clock ticks down, both men campaigned in the region this week: Romney came to Leesburg on Wednesday after a stop in Chesapeake, and Obama is holding a rally in Fairfax on Friday at George Mason University, one of the largest and most diverse colleges in the commonwealth and a site the president visited just two weeks ago.

Virginia’s 13 electoral votes hold different value for the two contenders: The votes are considered critical for Romney and a something of a treat for Obama. But both are trying to acquire them via the northern tier, particularly Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. Kaine won them in 2006; Obama prevailed there in 2008; but McDonnell carried them in 2009.

Virginia’s old vs. new sensibilities are perhaps best encapsulated in these counties. They are a mixture of rural and urban -- traditional rural whites who identify with the South, and newcomers (many of them young) lured by high-tech or government jobs (Democratic Reps. Jim Moran of Arlington and Gerry Connolly of Fairfax are both from the Boston area). The region also has sizable and growing Asian and Latino immigrant populations, diverse constituencies that could help determine such a closely contested race.

“It used to be, 15 years ago, [Republicans] could run up big margins in the Shenandoah Valley and in southwest, and get killed in Northern Virginia and still win by several points,” said Phil Cox, who managed McDonnell’s gubernatorial bid and now serves as executive director for the Republican Governors Association, which McDonnell chairs. “Virginia has more in common with a Northeastern state than it does with Alabama. . . . Classic suburban swing voters will decide election.” Those can be found in Richmond and Hampton Roads, of course, which are also campaign hot spots. But the Northern Virginia counties are especially precious, as they hold about a third of the state’s population.

McDonnell made some history of his own three years ago, winning by 18 points and becoming the first statewide Republican to win the trio of northern swing counties in decades. “But it’s a different electorate this year,” said Cox. “We had about 44 percent turnout. In a presidential year, it’s going to be closer to 70, so you’ve got to factor that in.” Still, Northern Virginia is key. And the region, which buoyed Obama to success four years ago, is up for grabs.

Romney is adopting McDonnell’s campaign model and infrastructure. His senior adviser, Ed Gillespie, chaired McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign and knows his home state well. Republican campaign operatives in Virginia insist their ground game and voter turnout efforts are unprecedented for the GOP. Romney is homing in on local concerns such as national security, transportation and sequestration defense cuts that threaten nearly 200,000 jobs in Virginia.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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