Virginia Notebook: Obama or Bust For '09 Race
With Election Day approaching, the four major candidates for governor next year almost certainly have one fact about Virginia politics on their minds: Since 1976, the party that wins the White House loses the governor's race the following year.
Virginia is one of only two states to have a governor's race the year following a presidential contest. And because Virginia voters have developed a reputation for shunning the party that controls the White House, the national pundits often use the outcome to suggest that a new president is off to a rocky start.
But that could all change next year.
If Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama wins the White House, the organization he has built in Virginia this year holds the potential to alter Virginia's political landscape into the next decade.
Although the first year of an Obama presidency could very well provoke some sort of backlash, especially if Democrats maintain big majorities in Congress, there are also signs that his effort in Virginia could become a major asset for his party.
Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell is the likely GOP nominee for governor. Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), and possibly former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, will fight for the Democratic nomination in the spring.
Although McDonnell might have a head start because he is running unopposed for the GOP nomination, the eventual Democratic nominee will have something McDonnell doesn't: Obama's organization.
Since the start of the year, Obama has opened more than 40 offices, dispatched hundreds of staff members and recruited tens of thousands of Democratic volunteers to help him in Virginia.
Obama's campaign is building on the structure that former governors Mark R. Warner, the Democratic candidate for Senate, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) put into place this decade.
Of course, GOP presidential nominee John McCain could win Virginia. But most pollsters and pundits say Obama is ahead, and either way, Democrats say the party is stronger in the state than it has been at any time in recent history.
Democratic volunteers have spent weeks canvassing neighborhoods seeking out potential voters in heavily Democratic neighborhoods as well as those in which Republicans have shown more strength. Once a volunteer identifies a Democratic-leaning voter, that intention is loaded into a massive database.
The information is then used to track when, and if, Democrats show up to vote on Election Day. But the data don't disappear after the election, meaning that all those new Democrats identified this year could also be targeted to show up to vote in next year's gubernatorial election.
Obama's campaign has also gathered tens of thousands of cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses from Virginians who support him. Some of that information has already made it into the hands of the state party, which has been calling people on their cellphones asking them if they are interested in volunteering for Obama. Party leaders plan to ask Obama for the remaining e-mail addresses and phone numbers.
In addition, since Jan. 1, nearly a half-million people have registered to vote. Virginia does not register voters by party, but communities with a history of voting Democratic have had the sharpest increases in voters.
In the 2005 governor's race, about 2.million residents voted, and Kaine defeated former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore by 113,000 votes, underscoring how influential those newly registered voters could be next year if they stay engaged in the political process.
Obama has also deployed an unprecedented number of field organizers, more than 100, into communities across the state. These workers, if they are doing their jobs, know where Democratic-leaning voters reside. Instead of going on the unemployment line after the election, some might be hired by the state party or one of the three Democratic candidates for governor.
In addition, many Obama supporters and volunteers are engaged in politics for the first time. In recent interviews, many of the newcomers expressed a willingness to make Virginia's governor's race their next mission.
"We will continue to move on for change," Denise Woolfolk of Richmond said as she waited for former president Bill Clinton at a rally at Virginia Commonwealth University two weeks ago. "I am the most excited for this election that I have ever been, and this energy is going to continue."
Deeds, Moran and McAuliffe have been campaigning extensively for Obama. All three understand that their chances to win the 2009 Democratic primary as well as the general election could hinge on keeping Obama's supporters engaged.
But a so-called Obama bounce for Democrats next year rests on his winning the White House.
Virginia Democrats might face an especially daunting task of turning out African Americans next year if Obama comes up short this year.
In Virginia, it's nearly impossible for a statewide Democratic candidate to win an election without a big turnout from African Americans, who traditionally make up 14 percent to 18 percent of the electorate.
Beverly Bell, an African American from Chesterfield County, said at the Clinton rally that she couldn't "even imagine Obama will not win."
"The environment is all set for him to win," Bell said. "I believe in the process. It is a stretch of the imagination that he will not win."
But Harvard University law professor Randall Kennedy has begun to think about what an Obama loss -- which is still a distinct possibility given that he hovers about 53 percent to McCain's 44 percent among likely voters , in most recent opinion polls -- would mean for African Americans.
In an op-ed published in The Washington Post last month, Kennedy wrote that he and other African Americans will be overcome with emotions ranging from "bitter disappointment" to "stark rage" if Obama doesn't prevail.
"I anticipate that most black Americans will believe that an Obama defeat will have stemmed in substantial part from a prejudice that robbed 40 million Americans of the chance to become president on the day they were born black," Kennedy wrote.
If that scenario unfolds, what incentive will there be for black voters to be engaged in the political process next year in Virginia?
Democrats who support Obama -- as well as Republicans who support McCain -- should duke it out this year as if the outcome of the Nov. 4 election could also be a harbinger of the 2009 governor's race.
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