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Virginia Notebook: The Bush Factor

Tim Craig

Virginia Republicans had a scare during the fall of 2004 when some polls showed Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry surprisingly close to President Bush in the campaign for the state's 13 electoral votes.

GOP leaders and activists rallied to Bush's side, ramping up the party's get-out-the-vote campaign and redoubling efforts to paint the Massachusetts senator as a Northeastern liberal who was out of step with the state's conservative reputation. On Election Day, it wasn't even close. Virginia went for Bush over Kerry by 9 percent.

Some Virginia Republicans, however, have been regretting that day ever since.

Bush's second term has coincided with the Virginia Republican Party's stunning decline in recent years, much of which can be attributed to voter attitudes toward Bush and Vice President Cheney.

In 2005, as voter fatigue with Bush was starting to settle in, Gov. candidate Timothy M. Kaine (D) upset Republican Jerry W. Kilgore. Many Washington pundits said Kaine's victory was a sign that Bush was becoming a drag on the GOP.

Last year, polls showed Bush's unpopularity was also a major factor in Democrat James Webb's U.S. Senate victory over George Allen, who as governor in the mid-1990s helped orchestrate the Republican Party's ascendancy in the state.

Now, Bush threatens to help hand control of the Virginia Senate to Democrats after the Nov. 6 election, when all 140 legislators are on the ballot. Virginia Republicans say decisions made at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. shouldn't impact the future of statehouse politicians in Richmond.

But it's increasingly looking and feeling like it could be a big year for Virginia Democrats, as evidenced by the party's success at raising money and recruiting volunteers. A Washington Post poll published Sunday found that 50 percent of likely voters want Democrats to take control of the General Assembly; 42 percent want Republicans to be in charge.

The poll found the GOP brand in Virginia is severely tarnished amid growing dissatisfaction with Bush, whose approval rating in the state stands at 35.percent. Equally troubling for GOP candidates: Nearly half of voters say they are less inclined to vote for a candidate who supports Bush's policies, compared with 27.percent who say they are more likely to do so.

Disdain for Bush crosses ethnic and geographic lines. In Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, where many of the competitive races for the House and Senate are being waged, voters by about 2 to 1 say they are less likely instead of more likely to support a state legislative candidate who supports Bush on most issues.

Among independents, who often decide elections in Virginia, 46.percent percent say they are less likely to support a House or Senate candidate who backs Bush. Seventeen percent say they are more likely to do so.

"The Republican Party in Virginia has been contaminated by the tremendous unpopularity of this president," said Robert Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

As they seek to gain the four seats needed to take the Senate and the 11 needed to win a majority in the House, Kaine and Virginia Democrats are trying to capitalize on the Bush fatigue.

Kaine says Virginia voters should compare the leadership shown by him and former governor Mark R. Warner (D) and contrast it with what they've seen out of Washington during the past seven years.

Two weeks ago, Kaine had a conference call with reporters to criticize Bush's decision to veto an expansion of the popular federal Children's Health Insurance Program.

"Why health-care coverage for poor children and women could cause him to exercise his veto really has me scratching my head," said Kaine, who later added, "I think it points out his priorities, and I think voters should take that into account."

C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, is even more blunt. "There is really two parts to the voting process. One is the selection of a candidate, another is sending a message," Cranwell said. "And I think one of the ways they send a message to Bush can be expressed through the ballot box in Virginia."

Bush has left Virginia GOP leaders in an awkward position as they try to hang on to their majorities in the General Assembly.

John H. Hager, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, was annoyed at a GOP news conference last week with Democratic efforts to make the fall election in part a referendum on Bush.

Hager, a former Bush administration official and future father-in-law of the president's daughter, Jenna, said Bush deserves credit for fighting terrorism and pushing for sSocial sSecurity and immigration changes.

"He has led our country in a way, quite frankly, we're proud of," Hager said.

Other GOP leaders have sought to put more distance between their candidates and Bush.

"This election isn't about what is happening in Washington, D.C. All of us get frustrated from time to time with what is happening in Washington, D.C. This is about what is happening in Richmond, Virginia," Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) said.

Republicans might be comforted by the results of last year's congressional races in Virginia.

Republican Reps. Thomas M. Davis III, Frank R. Wolf and Thelma D. Drake won reelection in hard-fought contests, although their Democratic opponents sought to link them to Bush.

But the Webb-Allen race topped the ballot last year. Davis said at the time that voters took out their frustrations with Bush in the Senate race instead of Virginia's congressional contests.

This year, state Senate candidates will be at the top of ballots in most parts of the state, leaving little if any cushion between them and anti-Bush voters.

Still, Democrats in many parts of Virginia should be wary of making the 2007 elections about Bush. If they want to make significant inroads in the General Assembly, Democrats have to win several seats in traditionally Republican-leaning areas.

The Post poll found that Bush could be an asset in those districts. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans say they are more likely to support a candidate who backs Bush, compared with 11.percent who are less likely.

Among white evangelicals, who form a big voting bloc in certain Senate districts, 42 percent say they are more likely to support a candidate who backs Bush; 28 say they are less likely.

With a low turnout expected, control of the General Assembly will rest on whether Bush lovers or Bush haters get to the polls.

But Bush can't fade from the political stage quickly enough for many Virginia Republican strategists, who are eager to start rebuilding a state party that has been weakened by the president.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

By Tim Craig  |  October 17, 2007; 2:49 PM ET
Categories:  Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook  
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