By Ford C. O’Connell, Republican strategist and J.R. Hoeft, blogger for BearingDrift.com
When Mitt Romney stopped in Virginia last week he said, “This may well be the state [that] decides who the next president is.”
At least he understands the stakes.
Barring a collapse by either Romney or President Obama, the popular vote will be close. Major polls are all within the margin of error and likely to stay that way. Romney supporters know they face an uphill battle to unseat an incumbent president. And, now that the primary season is over and Romney has emerged as the nominee, Democrats have begun to heed the call of former Clinton campaign aide James Carville to “wake the you-know-what up.”
But it’s not about the popular vote. It’s about the Electoral College – and there, President Obama has a decided advantage right now. Chris Cillizza, author of The Fix blog in The Washington Post, sees no way Romney can exceed 290 electoral votes. He sees a rough, but doable path for President Obama to win nearly 310.
Almost all prognosticators agree the election is largely over in at least 35 states. Cillizza says it’s largely decided in 43. He says Republicans can count on 24 states with 206 electoral votes and Democrats can count on 19 states, including giants such as California and New York, worth 247 votes. That leaves seven battleground states – Colorado (9 electoral votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18) and Virginia (13).
That’s what makes Virginia so important. If President Obama wins the Old Dominion again, it would mean he could lose Ohio or Florida – perhaps even both – and still win re-election. Romney’s opportunities to flip a state and make up ground – Michigan and Pennsylvania – are longer shots. He must have Virginia to win.
It won’t be easy because both sides expect to win yet know it will require tremendous resources to do so.
Before 2008, Virginia was a reliably Republican state in presidential elections. It hadn’t gone for a Democrat since LBJ in 1964. Even Robert Dole, who absorbed a 31-state shellacking from President Clinton in 1996, captured the state by a safe margin.
But by the time the last presidential election rolled around, the Republican brand was in deep trouble in the state. President George W. Bush had seen his hard positives fall into mid-single digits in the centrist 11th District. College students, lured by rhetoric of hope and change and the opportunity to elect the first black president in American history, turned out as never before. Congressional candidates were in trouble even in traditional Republican strongholds. When it was over, Obama had defeated John McCain by 234,000 votes out of 3.7 million cast.
Sen. McCain held his own in the Southside area that abuts North Carolina, the Shenandoah Valley and the mountainous southwest. But President Obama dominated the Golden Crescent, which extends from the Washington suburbs south to Richmond, then east to the Beach area, as has no Democrat in modern history.
Obama not only carried the 3rd (Richmond-Williamsburg-Norfolk) and 8th (Alexandria-Arlington-McLean), traditional liberal strongholds, he took the 11th (Fairfax-Prince William), the heavily military 2nd (Virginia Beach-Eastern Shore) and 4th (Chesapeake-Chesterfield) and even the 10th (Great Falls-Herndon-Loudoun) – which had been one of the most Republican districts in the country as recently as 2000.
Republicans say it will be hard to repeat this success. They point to the Republican landslide in the 2009 statewide elections that swept popular Gov. Robert McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bob Bolling and firebrand conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli into office and the fact Republicans now control both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.
They point to success in local elections in Fairfax County, where one in seven Virginians live, as evidence this polyglot jurisdiction with its wealth of corporate headquarters could respond to Romney’s economic and pro-business appeals. They say the Richmond suburbs, where McDonnell won by even larger majorities than House Majority Leader Eric Cantor usually enjoys, as evidence the Republican brand is back in the state’s sprawling and growing suburbs.
But Democrats have plenty of cause for optimism as well. After all, they can claim to have flipped a half-million votes in the last presidential election – going from a 262,000-vote loss in 2004 to a 234,000-vote victory in 2008.
Moreover, Fairfax-Prince William has elected Gerry Connolly, a left-of-center Democratic congressman, for two terms now, and he is a shoo-in to win again in 2012. The 10th, where Loudoun remains one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, continues to trend blue. Large Latino communities – which traditionally vote Democratic – have emerged in the Richmond suburbs, particularly in Chesterfield and Mechanicsville, which could help curb Republican margins of victory in those areas.
And the state is becoming more urban throughout, which also could contribute to Democratic success. Even the 6th District, which hugs I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, saw its margins of victory for the Republican presidential ticket cut from 76,000 in 2004 to 48,000 out of 320,000 cast in 2008.
So, what can Romney do to win? He’ll get some help from turnout, which should fall from its historic high of more than 70 percent in 2008 down to traditional levels in the high-60s. Other trends – big business is emerging as a critical anti-Obama force, and big business has become much bigger in Northern Virginia in the last four years – also will help.
But Romney must hold down margins in the districts where he won’t win – the 3rd and 8th. Obama doubled the Democratic margins of victory there from 2004. He must clobber the president in the 1st, 6th, 7th and 9th. Romney must also reassert control over the military-heavy districts in Hampton Roads, and he must compete in the Washington suburbs.
And he’s actually not a bad candidate for that last proposition. He should keep the focus off social issues and on a strong economic message that highlights entitlement reform, economic growth, energy production – a proposal to drill for oil off Virginia’s coast enjoys broad support – and the failure of the Obama administration to address energy or the economy.
It can be done. It won’t be easy. But failure is not an option.
O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign, is chairman of CivicForumPAC, an organization that promotes conservative activism. Hoeft is a blogger turned publisher of the online conservative magazine BearingDrift.com.
This column originally appeared at The Hill’s Congress Blog on May 11.
Romney’s stop in Virginia