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Virginia Notebook: Are Obama Voters Bad News for GOP?

Steve Fehr

Sen. Barack Obama didn't just beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Virginia Democratic primary Feb..12. He defeated her so handily that Virginia politicians running for Congress or statewide office might want to study the results for clues about their political futures.

Obama's 28-point margin of victory was one of the largest percentage-point wins in recent history by a candidate in a supposedly competitive statewide primary or general election.

Obama swept all but a few precincts in Loudoun, Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington counties, often 2 to 1. He racked up similar victories in Richmond and its suburbs and in Republican-leaning central and southern Virginia.

And in Hampton Roads, Obama won strong majorities not only in Democratic-leaning Norfolk but also in more conservative areas such as Virginia Beach.

But the vote totals are only part of the story.

Almost 1.million people voted in the Democratic primary, nearly double the turnout in the GOP contest. According to exit polls, 37.percent of those voters had never voted in a Democratic primary before.

Politicians and strategists don't like uncertainty. If Obama wins the nomination, still a big if, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) says the Illinois senator would have a good chance of winning the state in the fall.

Obama would still face an uphill struggle to claim the state's 13 electoral votes, considering that Virginia last voted for a Democratic nominee for president in 1964.

In the 2004 presidential race, 3.1.million people voted in Virginia. That means Obama would have to find 600,000 votes to win the state in November, assuming he picks up all the people who voted for Clinton (N.Y.) last week.

But if what has been described by some as "Obamania" persists into the fall, there are at least three GOP congressional incumbents who shouldn't take anything for granted.

Reps. Thelma A. Drake, Virgil H. Goode Jr. and Frank R. Wolf are favored to win reelection, considering that Republicans drew their district boundary lines.

Each of those districts, however, could be susceptible to an uptick in Democratic turnout if Obama is at the top of the ticket.

Goode's district stretches from Charlottesville to Danville in south central Virginia. In Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, 3,918 people voted in the Democratic primary in 2004. Last week, 7,676 votes were cast, and Obama won 75 percent of them.

Goode's district is also 24percent black. In the Danville area, where blacks account for 45.percent of the population, Obama won 77percent of the vote.

After a narrow win in 2006 over Democrat Phil Kellman, Drake was expected to have an easier race this year, especially because a surge usually occurs among Republican-leaning military voters who typically cast ballots only in presidential elections. Democrats also struggled to find a well-funded candidate willing to take on Drake this year.

But in traditionally conservative Virginia Beach, 51,000 voted in the Democratic primary this year, compared with 30,000 in the GOP primary, suggesting more Democratic votes could be there than previously thought.

In Northern Virginia, Wolf's district includes a lot of young professionals in western Fairfax and Loudoun counties, which could dilute the solid GOP advantage in the rest of the district.

Everything would have to line up perfectly for the Democrats this fall, including a lower-than-average GOP turnout, for any of those incumbents to lose.

It's not a likely scenario.

But pollster J. Brad Coker said GOP incumbents would be foolish to discount Obama's potential to bring more Democratic-leaning voters to the polls.

"It should be a reason for Republicans all the way down the ticket to be worried," said Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. "How much of this new, liberal voter that Obama is tapping into is going to be there in the fall? I just don't know."

But some people who voted for Obama last week might be unlikely to stick with him in the fall if he is the nominee. According to exit polls, 7.percent of the electorate in the Democratic primary self-identified as Republicans. Many of them were drawn to the polls by what they said was their hatred of Clinton and her husband, the former president.

Some of those voters came from such places as Poquoson, a city in Tidewater, where President Bush got 77.percent of the vote in 2004. Obama won Poquoson, which is 95.percent white, with 54.percent of the vote. About 1,200 people voted in the Democratic primary last week, twice as many as showed up for the Democratic presidential primary in 2004.

There were also signs of traditional Republicans voting in the Democratic primary in Chesterfield County, where the turnout was so large and unexpected that there was a shortage of Democratic ballots. (Virginia voters do not have to affiliate with a party to vote in the primary.)

"With the Republican race settled, there is a temptation on the part of a number of Republicans to go into the Democratic contest and take care of the Clintons," Coker said. "I personally know two Republicans who did it."

If Clinton is the nominee, that could pose a challenge to former governor Mark R. Warner, the likely Democratic nominee in this year's U.S. Senate race.

If some Republicans are so eager to vote against Clinton in a Democratic primary, what will the GOP turnout be in November if she is at the top of the ticket?

And will Virginia's African American voters, nine of 10 of whom went for Obama, be energized to turn out if Clinton is the nominee?

If Obama is the nominee, Warner faces another set of problems in southwest Virginia, where Obama failed to break 15.percent in several counties despite winning statewide with 64.percent of the vote.

Warner is popular in southwest Virginia, but last week's results suggest he might have to campaign harder in that area to offset GOP efforts to tie him to the presidential race.

There are a lot of unknowns about how the presidential contest will affect races down the ballot. But one result of the Potomac Primary is undeniable: Virginia Democrats have been handed a gift.

They have a list of nearly 1.million people who voted in their primary last week, although some are Republicans. The state party can target those voters through next year's governor's race.

Just under 2 million voted in the 2005 governor's race, suggesting there could be an emerging Democratic majority in Virginia.

By Steve Fehr  |  February 20, 2008; 12:18 PM ET
Categories:  Election 2008/Congress , Election 2008/Local , Election 2008/President , Election 2008/U.S. Senate , Frank R. Wolf , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook  
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Comments

turnout comparisons don't make any sense, when was the last time a virginia primary actually mattered? Kerry had it all wrapped up in Iowa

Posted by: Anonymous | February 20, 2008 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Yes, if either the 10th or the 5th had decent democratic nominees, I guess there could be close races. Feder is so far out of the mainstream she makes Obama look conservative and many dems in southside like Goode because he is one of them. Feder is just about as bad a candidate as the dems could field in NOVA. She would be better off running for Congressman of Arlington or Georgetown or some other far left area. Feder had everything going for her in 2006 which was a horrible year for Republicans and got absolutely obliterated because she is percieved as an out of touch liberal extremist college professor.

The guy running against Goode I believe is from the Charlottesville area. That won't go over too well for him in the rest of the southside district, even with dems.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 20, 2008 3:22 PM | Report abuse

It's Phil Kellam not "Phil Kellman." Don't you guys have proofreaders?

Posted by: It's Not Kellman | February 20, 2008 8:20 PM | Report abuse

proofreaders? they have a hard enough time finding the writers that they have

Posted by: Anonymous | February 21, 2008 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Tom Perriello will defeat Virgil Goode this November. He's been reaching out all over the district and having tremendous success in bringing together the people of Southside. With Obama and Warner helping on the ticket Danville will have a huge turnout. This is going to be a shocker

Posted by: The 5th will Change | February 22, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

"The guy running against Goode I believe is from the Charlottesville area. That won't go over too well for him in the rest of the southside district, even with dems."

So let me get this right, because someone is born in one place, you suggest they are less capable of relating or representing the people who live somewhere else? I detect a certain arrogance and condescension in this form of thinking. I give the voters of the 5th more credit than that and I hope the author of this post would as well.

Posted by: James | February 22, 2008 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I just don't understand why we don't put Obama down for every race in every state he is so wonderful he would win them all and all of america would have hope for the future of future hope

Posted by: Anonymous | February 22, 2008 12:35 PM | Report abuse

"So let me get this right, because someone is born in one place, you suggest they are less capable of relating or representing the people who live somewhere else?"


Yes, absolutely! Ole Virgil is a good old boy from the southside. NO one from the Albemarle area is going to do better than Al Weed. There will be heavy democratic crossover against an "outsider" for Goode just because he offers great constituent service with a hometown flavor. Same with Feder, even though she lives in the 10th district, she more or less posesses the values of the liberal D.C. insider college environment completely out of touch with most of the 10th.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 22, 2008 1:16 PM | Report abuse

go away geography nazi

Posted by: Anonymous | February 22, 2008 5:08 PM | Report abuse

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