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Virginia Notebook: The State's Purple Places

Tim Craig

With Virginia shaping up as a battleground in the presidential contest between Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.),a few counties and cities will be key in deciding whether the state goes blue this year for the first time since 1964.

Just as the national map can be sliced into blue, red and purple states, so, too, can Virginia's 134 counties and cities.

In Northern Virginia, political analysts say, Obama will probably win in Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties, given recent voting patterns. Democrats also usually rack up big wins in Richmond, Norfolk and Charlottesville. McCain will probably have a strong advantage in rural counties in western and southern Virginia.

What follows is a list of 10 Virginia locations that could be up for grabs.

Loudoun County: Until early this decade, Loudoun was solidly Republican because of its mix of conservative, rural residents and people who were fleeing the inner suburbs. But the county's rapid growth -- its population has risen by nearly 50 percent since 2000 -- is changing its politics.

In the 2005 governor's race, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine surprised many by convincingly winning the county over Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, a former attorney general. A year later, Sen. James Webb (D) won Loudoun over former GOP senator George Allen. Democratic gains in the county were reinforced last year, when Democrats secured a majority on the Board of Supervisors.

Many parts of Loudoun are still relatively conservative, and Democratic presidential candidates have not had much luck there. President Bush won Loudoun with 56 percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004, although the number of people casting ballots in the county increased by more than 25.percent between the elections.

But Loudoun voters are among the wealthiest, most educated in the nation, making them one of Obama's prime targets in the fall, because he did well with those groups during the primaries. Minorities who tend to vote Democratic could also give him a boost in Loudoun, where 11 percent of residents are foreign born.

Prince William County: Much like Loudoun, Prince William was once solidly Republican. But it also went for Kaine and Webb, albeit narrowly. Democratic political strategists say Prince William is one of the most difficult Virginia counties to predict. Over the past year, the GOP-controlled Board of County Supervisors has enacted some of the most stringent laws aimed at illegal immigrants in the country.

Last year, county voters gave Democratic candidates cause for worry during state legislative campaigns because polls showed that Prince William was the only place in Northern Virginia where voters weren't responding to the Democratic message.

In recent presidential contests, Prince William has given Democratic candidates slightly better numbers than in Loudoun. Bush won Prince William with 53 percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004. Obama should start with a solid base because Prince William is about 20 percent black, but McCain could do well among the county's large numbers of active and retired military personnel.

Rappahannock County: Rappahannock, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has a population of about 7,200. But it sometimes stands out on election night electoral maps because it is a Democratic dot surrounded by solidly Republican counties. Bush won Rappahannock by about 350 votes in both of his races. In 2005, Kaine won it by 114 votes. A year later, Webb won it by 148 votes.

Caroline County: With about 27,000 people, Caroline is just south of Fredericksburg. It often sways between the two parties. Former vice president Al Gore (D) carried it by 441 votes during his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2000, but Bush won it by 121 votes in 2004. A year later, Kaine carried it with 54.percent of the vote; in 2006, Webb won it by 191 votes. Turnout among African Americans, who make up 29 percent of the county's population, is key to Democratic prospects.

Henrico County: Richmond's conservative suburbs have rarely flinched from their Republican leanings since the early 1970s. But Democrats are optimistic about Obama's chances this year in Henrico, which surrounds Richmond.

Although it is not growing as fast as some counties in Northern Virginia, Henrico is starting to take on some of the qualities of Fairfax, especially in the western neighborhoods near the Short Pump mall. About 28 percent of the population is black. Bush easily won Henrico in his races, but Kaine won it by eight percentage points in 2005. (Kaine, a former Richmond mayor, was the local candidate.) In 2006, Webb lost Henrico by 562 votes out the 101,000 that were cast.

Nelson County: This mountainous county of 15,000 is southwest of Albemarle County, which surrounds Charlottesville. With a mix of rural voters and transplants from liberal-leaning Charlottesville, Nelson has become a tossup in presidential contests. In 2000, Bush won it by six votes. Four years later, he lost it to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass) by four votes. Webb and Kaine both won it fairly easily.

Montgomery County: Between the Appalachian Plateau and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Montgomery includes Blacksburg, which is home to Virginia Tech. Bush carried the county twice, but Kaine and Webb also won it. Results this year could depend on the turnout among Virginia Tech students.

Russell County: Russell, in coal country in southwestern Virginia, has traditionally been Democratic, supporting Bill Clinton during his presidential campaigns in the 1990s. Since then, Russell and the rest of the region have been trending Republican. Gore won the county with 50 percent of the vote in 2000, but Bush won it easily in 2004. Kilgore, who lived in the region, carried Russell in the 2005 governor's race, but Webb won it by 171 votes the next year.

Given the region's strong ties to the Democratic Party and organized labor, Russell could be an indicator of Obama's appeal to working-class voters in the area. In the Feb.12 primary, he won just 14 percent of the vote in Russell, where whites are 98 percent of the population.

Suffolk City: About 80,000 people live in Suffolk, which is in southeastern Virginia on the North Carolina border. The city, which covers 430 square miles, is home to the state's peanut industry, but it is also experiencing rapid suburban growth as people move in from nearby Virginia Beach and Norfolk. African Americans, who traditionally vote Democratic, are 41 percent of the population. Gore carried it narrowly in 2000, but Bush won it with 52 percent of the vote in 2004. The next year, Kaine won it by 10.percentage points; in 2006, Webb won it by 171 votes.

Virginia Beach: With its conservative reputation, Virginia Beach would not have been, in the minds of Democrats, up for grabs in a presidential election, at least not a few years ago. Home to the ministries of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and large numbers of military voters, Virginia Beach went solidly for Bush in 2000 and 2004. But Kaine narrowly won it in 2005, and Democrats picked up two House of Delegates seats there last year.

Democrats say they think Obama has a shot at making his race competitive in Virginia Beach. But he'll need to do well among active and retired military personnel and their families and drive up turnout among blacks, who are 20percent of the population.

By Tim Craig  |  July 16, 2008; 8:42 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Election 2008/Congress , Election 2008/Local , Election 2008/President , Election 2008/U.S. Senate , Prince William , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook  
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Virginia beach? With a Navy Flyboy running? Not likely.

Posted by: On the Ground | July 17, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

As someone from VA Beach who still has family in the area, I can assure you it doesn't matter that a fly boy is running. People are not happy and the idea of voting blue isn't as unlikely as you think.

Posted by: NoVA | July 17, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

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