Swing state stories: Virginia

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Since Eisenhower’s first election in 1952, Virginia has been a solidly Republican state, only going to the Democrats in the landslide election of 1964. As a former Confederate state, the state was solidly Democratic until the 1950s and 1960s, which saw a switch to the Republicans.

In local politics, Virginia was dominated by Republicans in the 1990s, with Republican governors George Allen and Jim Gilmore winning election in 1993 and 1997 respectively. Virginia has the stricted term limits law in the country, with governors limited to one four-year term in office. During the 1990s the Senate contingent was split between Democrat Chuck Robb and Republican John Warner.

Virginia gained an extra seat in the US House of Representatives in 1993, going from 10 to 11 seats. After Democrats lost one seat at the 1994 Republican landslide, but held six of eleven seats from 1994 to 2000. The 2000 election saw Virgil Goode change from Democrat to Independent, resulting in a 5-5-1 split, while the Republicans won control of the Virginian House of Delegates and former governor George Allen won the Senate seat for the Republicans. The following redistricting in 2001 strongly favoured the Republicans. They gained a seat at a 2001 special election in the 4th district. The 2002 election saw one more Republican defeat a Democrat, while Independent Virgil Goode was re-elected as a Republican. The Republicans have maintained this 8-3 lead in Virginia House of Representatives seats at the 2004 and 2006 elections.

The Democrats won back control of the governorship in 2001, when liberal businessman Mark Warner was elected to office. The 2005 election saw his lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, elected as his successor.

The 2006 race for the Senate saw former Reagan Secretary of the Navy and Vietnam veteran Jim Webb challenge sitting Senator George Allen. Webb remained behind for most of the campaign, until the turning point of the Macaca scandal in August, when Allen was videoed using a racial epithet against a Webb supporter of Indian heritage who appeared at an Allen event. After Webb began climbing in the polls, he took the lead in late October and ended up defeating Alllen by a slim 9329 votes, a margin of 0.4%. The race was the closest in the country and decided which party would hold a majority in the Senate.

Geographically, Virginia is a divided state. A quarter of Virginia’s population lives in Northern Virginia, which is made up essentially of the southern suburbs of Washington DC, leaning heavily to the Democrats. In contrast, the southern, more rural districts, are heavily dominated by the Republicans.

The races in 2008

In late August 2007, long-serving Republican Senator John Warner announced that he would retire at the 2008 election. Two weeks later, former governor Mark Warner (no relation) announced he would run as a Democratic candidate for Senate. Facing no Democratic primary opposition, Warner took an early lead over his potential Republican opponents. The Republicans chose another former governor, Jim Gilmore, following Gilmore’s withdrawal from the Republican presidential primary. Yet Warner has dominated the race for the entire campaign. The Pollster.com average has strongly favoured Warner for the entire campaign, Warner currently leads by 59.4% to 32%. Out of all the Democrats’ potential Senate gains in 2008, Warner is the most likely. It seems impossible that the Democrats won’t pick up this seat.

In addition to the three seats won in the past three elections, the Democrats appear on track to win back the Northern Virginia 11th District, after losing it at the 1994 election. In addition, the Democrats have outside shots of winning the 2nd and 5th Districts. In particular, the 2nd District has seen a rapid rise in the Democrat vote in the last few months.

The presidential race in Virginia has also shifted strongly to the Democrats. John McCain held a lead from February until June, when his gradually declining lead was eliminated. McCain and Obama remained neck-and-neck for three months, before McCain’s vote collapsed in mid-September, with Obama taking a dominant lead in the state, with Obama now leading by an average of 8.1%. Virginia’s status as a solid Obama gain is making it extremely difficult for McCain to find the 270 electoral votes needed to win. If Obama carries through on his current lead and wins, Virginia will likely be an essential component of that victory.

Pollster.com rolling average of the Virginia presidential race
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