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Virginia's Results Pose Puzzle for Parties

Virginia's Results Pose Puzzle for Parties

By Salena Zito - November 16, 2014

Election results are like the tiny pieces of a vast, intricate jigsaw puzzle depicting America's landscape, complete with rolling farms, a railroad crossing, blocks of industry, homes and people — lots and lots of different people.

Only the incredibly patient, astute and determined can recognize how thousands of unique puzzle pieces match up to re-create the scene.

No set of rules or patterns determine the outcome, because sometimes things just happen without the guidance of political science or mathematics.

People vote their values, their pocketbooks, what is best for their families or communities, and always for whoever gives them a sense of security.

Contrary to pundit-speak, they do not always vote for who lines up with them on every issue. The pundits often mistakenly believe social issues are the same thing as values when, in most cases, they are not — especially when used like a hammer either for or against an opponent.

Before the 2006 midterm election cycle, experts classified Virginia as a reliably Republican-red state — but then Democrat Jim Webb defeated incumbent Republican George Allen for a U.S. Senate seat, and Barack Obama beat Republican John McCain for the presidency two years later.

Following the 2008 presidential election, everyone said the puzzle pieces made the state Democrat blue, until things got successively more confusing: In 2009, a Republican won the governor's office by an overwhelming margin; the 2010 midterms saw the statewide representation become still redder; but, in 2012, Obama and Tim Kaine, the Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, turned the state blue again.

With last year's gubernatorial race, no one — not even Republicans — thought Ken Cuccinelli stood a chance against Bill and Hillary Clinton's “professional friend,” Democrat Terry McAuliffe. But the race ended so razor-thin that professional Republicans privately wished they had packed more money and bodies into the campaign.

This year was no different.

While no one was looking, Republican Ed Gillespie came so close in his race against incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, that a recount was considered.

Gillespie told me in a summer interview that the race would go down to the wire; I believed it, after watching him travel the commonwealth at an exhausting pace, always with a smile on his face and a message in his speeches.

“There are a lot of Virginia Republicans kicking themselves today, knowing that Cuccinelli should have been the canary in the coal mine and that the Gillespie race was worth a lot more investment,” says Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based expert on Republican politics and founding partner of Purple Strategies, a bipartisan communications firm.

The arc of the Cuccinelli race showed that, even without their best candidate or best campaign, Republicans came awfully close to knocking off an incredibly well-connected, well-financed, well-seasoned Democrat, Haynes says.

Veteran Democrat strategist Joe Trippi says both parties read too much into the results in Virginia and the rest of the country: In 2010, Republicans thought they would kick Democrats; in 2012, Democrats thought they'd kick Republicans.

“What is really going on is that both parties don't recognize their peril and they are still both missing that voters are not voting for them, but against them,” Trippi says. And neither knows “how to address and harness this populist moment.”

Putting together the pieces of Virginia today is even more complicated.

Northern Virginia is not just a different geography from the rest of the commonwealth; its inhabitants are different from the rest of the country. They are extraordinarily wealthy (six northern counties are among the country's wealthiest), powerful (they work as influential lobbyists or for the White House, State, Defense, etc.) and largely dependent on the federal government.

Haynes says that part of the puzzle of what is going on in Virginia is a model of what is going on in the country: It is a populist movement in which voters are steering candidates to talk about the issues that voters want to talk about — not what the parties want to debate — and those same voters are breaking with conventional wisdom.

Virginia keeps telling us something that the rest of the country is echoing.

But no one in Washington seems to be able to put the puzzle together. 

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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