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Virginia Notebook: The 2009 Governor's Race

Tim Craig

For those who can't get enough of Virginia elections, time to look ahead to the governor's race in 2009.

Yes, there is a U.S. Senate and presidential election next November. But with former governor Mark R. Warner (D) an early favorite to win the Senate race, the election for governor will be the contest that will really decide whether Virginia is turning blue or if party gains this decade were caused largely of President Bush's unpopularity.

Candidates in both major parties are starting to gear up for the governor's race. And much of the early positioning centers on who is most likely to win a general election, an issue that might dominate both parties' nominating contests in 2009.

For Republicans looking to stage a comeback in the commonwealth , the early jockeying centers on Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and former governor and U.S. senator George F. Allen.

Allen, governor from 1994 to 1998, has been sending strong signals in recent weeks that he might be about to reemerge onto the political stage. At a news conference last week, Allen was affable and talkative, appearing as if he has put last year's U.S. Senate loss to James Webb (D-Va.) behind him.

Eleven days ago, Allen also penned an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in which he talked about his record as governor and the future of the state GOP. Allen didn't say whether he plans to run for governor, but he wrote that Republicans need to "earn the privilege to serve and lead again."

If he runs, Republicans and Democrats say, he would be a formidable candidate and an early favorite to win the GOP nomination. Allen could tap his solid base of support in the Richmond suburbs, and the Shenandoah Valley and southern Virginia.

Because of his strength in those regions, Allen came within 9,000 votes of winning reelection, despite his well-publicized gaffes and opposition to his support for the war in Iraq.

But Allen would have to find a way to reconnect with voters in Northern Virginia, which he lost to Webb by more than 100,000 votes.

Many newcomers in rapidly changing and diversifying Northern Virginia don't remember when Allen was governor. Their first impressions will come from last year's Senate race.

By nominating Allen, Republicans also would run the risk of guaranteeing that the Democratic base, as well as party money from across the country, is are energized to try to thwart his effort at a political comeback.

Just a few years ago, the state's base of Democratic votes wasn't large enough to make Republicans feel threatened. But as the Nov.6 election showed, there are signs that base is now more of an electoral force because Democratic leaders have spent years identifying new supporters.

Allen also would be campaigning under intense scrutiny. Even if he could shake all the rumors and innuendos that surrounded him in 2006, liberal bloggers would always be on the lookout for his next misstep.

Some Republicans wonder whether an Allen candidacy would be worth the risks, so they are hoping for an alternative.

If Allen runs, it's unclear whether Bolling would get into the race. McDonnell, however, says he is running either way because he believes he is the most electable candidate.

McDonnell grew up in Fairfax County but raised his family in Virginia Beach, which his advisers say gives him an advantage in the two regions where Republicans have been losing ground.

McDonnell could become the state's first Catholic Republican governor. He had a 20-year Army career, which could help him with the state's large veteran population.

"If you were creating a statewide standard-bearer, those are probably the traits you want to include," said J. Tucker Martin, a McDonnell spokesman.

McDonnell, who might find it hard to raise money if Allen is in the race, would still have to overcome several challenges in a general election. He holds the same conservative views on social issues that have cost Republican candidates votes in Northern Virginia. He also played a key role in getting House and Senate Republicans to agree on this year's transportation bill, which included the controversial fees on bad drivers.

Regardless of whom the GOP nominates, that person could emerge as an early favorite if Democrats don't have a candidate with statewide appeal.

Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria) and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) are laying the groundwork to run for governor in 2009. The contest could come down to which Democratic candidate has the better strategy for winning a general election.

Deeds, who narrowly lost to McDonnell in the 2005 attorney general's race, says he would help the party win votes in southern and western Virginia. His campaign advisers note that Democrats failed to pick up any state legislative seats this year outside of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

"It shows Virginia is still a moderate, middle-of-the-road state," said Peter Jackson, a Deeds spokesman.

In 2005, Deeds was endorsed by the National Rifle Association. He went on to win a higher percentage of the vote than other statewide Democratic candidates that year in several rural counties. But he got fewer voters in the suburban and exurban counties than the other statewide candidates on the Democratic ticket.

That's one reason Moran say that he has a better chance of winning a general election.

"Northern Virginia voters know Brian Moran and will turn out in large numbers if he chooses to run," said Jesse Ferguson , a Moran spokesman.

But Moran is untested in a statewide campaign. Because he was born and raised in Massachusetts and now represents liberal-leaning Alexandria, Republicans could have plenty of fodder to portray Moran as out of touch with many Virginia voters.

Moran could also be burdened by voters' impressions of his brother, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who has made his share of controversial statements.

The big unknown about 2009 is whether Kaine-Warner fatigue will have set in and what the national political environment will be.

Since Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, whichever party wins the White House has lost the Virginia governor's race the following year.

So maybe it's best to sit back and watch the 2008 presidential campaign unfold before thinking too much ahead to 2009.

By Tim Craig  |  November 21, 2007; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Bill Bolling , Election 2007 , Election 2009 , George F. Allen , James P. Moran Jr. , James Webb , Mark Warner , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook  
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