Virginia Notebook: Democrats Ahead in '09 Race
One year before voters go to the polls to elect a new governor, Virginia Democrats appear well positioned to stay in power and continue their winning streak in major state races, according to a new Washington Post poll.
In one of the first surveys to explore the 2009 political landscape, Democrats have a 17-point advantage when voters are asked which party they want to win the governor's race.
The question, included in a Washington Post Poll on the presidential race published Monday, highlights the challenges facing Republicans as more Virginia voters identify themselves as Democrats and independents.
Of registered voters, 48 percent prefer a Democratic governor vs. 31 percent who want a Republican.
According to the survey, a generic Democratic gubernatorial nominee starts the year with the same coalition of support that led to the election as governor of Mark R. Warner (D) in 2001 and Timothy M. Kaine (D) in 2005.
The survey, which shows voters in Northern Virginia favoring Democrats by 57 percent to 25 percent, sets the stage for another hard-fought political contest in the Old Dominion next year.
Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell is running unopposed for the Republican nomination for governor.
But for the first time since 1985, Democrats are girding for a primary fight to decide their nominee. Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria) and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, who narrowly lost to McDonnell in the 2005 attorney general's race, have announced they plan to run. Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and adviser to Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, is also considering a run.
The nomination is up for grabs in a three-way fight, according to the poll. When self-identified Democrats and independents who lean Democratic were asked which candidate they prefer as the nominee, 16 percent named Moran, 12 percent McAuliffe and 11 percent Deeds.
More than half the respondents said they were undecided. Moran's narrow advantage is within the margin of error. Only a small percentage of registered voters will turn out in the June primary, so it's hard to make any broad conclusions about the findings. In addition, the race will change dramatically once the candidates begin to campaign.
With McAuliffe and Moran living in Northern Virginia, the conventional wisdom is that Deeds benefits from a three-way fight for the nomination. But the poll finds the three candidates are separated by five percentage points or less in Hampton Roads, Richmond and the western part of the state.
In Northern Virginia, Moran has 22 percent of the vote and McAuliffe 12 percent. Deeds is drawing only 6 percent in Northern Virginia.
Black voters and self-described liberals, who tend to vote in higher percentages in Democratic primaries, will likely play a key role in determining the nominee.
Moran holds an eight-point advantage over McAuliffe among African Americans. McAuliffe and Moran are tied among voters who identified themselves as liberals.
White men essentially split their votes among the three candidates, and Moran holds a seven-point advantage among white women. Deeds does best among moderate Democrats.
The survey, conducted Oct. 22 to 25, did not match McDonnell against any of the potential Democratic candidates.
Because he is likely running unopposed for the Republican nomination, McDonnell will be able to spend the winter and spring stockpiling money, organizing his campaign and developing a message for the fall, while the Democrats duke it out.
McDonnell, a former legislator who had a 21-year career in Army, has a broad résumé that will make him a formidable Republican candidate. But the poll suggests McDonnell, an unabashed social and economic conservative, could face a difficult political climate once a Democratic nominee is chosen.
Self-described independents say they prefer a Democrat to win the governor's race, by 40 percent to 25 percent. Female voters favor a Democrat by about 2 to 1, as do moderates.
Nearly 90 percent of African Americans want a Democratic governor, which is consistent with past statewide elections. The two parties are tied among white voters, a troubling sign for Republicans, who need to win this group by a big margin.
The huge showing in the poll for Democrats in Northern Virginia is a testament to the region's shifting demographics. It also might signal voter frustration with Republicans in
Richmond over the lack of new revenue for transportation.
In Hampton Roads, where traffic is also a concern, voters prefer a Democratic governor by 54 percent to 32 percent. Even in the historically conservative Richmond and western
Virginia areas, registered voters narrowly prefer a Democratic governor.
Conservatives overwhelmingly want Republicans to reclaim the governor's race. In addition, white evangelicals favor a Republican by 2 to 1.
In the 1990s, Republicans and white evangelicals made up a large enough share of the electorate to help elect two successive Republican governors, George Allen and James S. Gilmore III. But the number of Virginia voters identifying themselves as Republicans has steadily declined during President Bush's second term.
As McDonnell works to expand the Republican base next year, he starts with several advantages. McDonnell, whose home political base is Virginia Beach and who maintains extensive ties to the military veteran community, will probably perform far better in Hampton Roads than the nameless Republican asked about in the poll.
McDonnell, if elected, would also be Virginia's first Republican Catholic governor. Currently, white Catholics favor a Democratic governor by 46.percent to 31.percent.
McDonnell advisers think he will do better in Northern Virginia than other recent statewide Republican candidates.
Much can and will change over the next year, including a possible backlash against a new administration and Congress in Washington. Republicans, though, might want to take note of a similar Virginia poll conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University in summer 2007.
That poll found that four in 10 Virginia voters wanted the next president to be a Democrat, compared with 33.percent who said they favor a Republican. At the time, Republicans scoffed at the suggestion that Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1964, could be up for grabs in this year's presidential race.
But The Washington Post poll published Monday showed Democrat Barack Obama with an eight-point lead over Republican John McCain in Virginia, 52.percent to 44.percent.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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