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Virginia Notebook: Searching for that Ceiling

Tim Craig

For Republicans still reeling from the drubbing the party took in Northern Virginia on Election Day, there is good and bad news in the outcome.

First the bad news.

President-elect Barack Obama received 60 percent of the vote in Fairfax County and 72 percent in Arlington County and Alexandria, giving him a trove of support that made it nearly impossible for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to carry the state.

Now, the good news.

Obama drew 60 percent of the vote in Fairfax and 72 percent in Arlington and Alexandria, which are about the same percentages that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Sen. James Webb (D) received in their races in 2005 and 2006.

As Virginia Republican leaders gather this week for their annual retreat at the Homestead resort in the Allegheny Mountains, the party will try to determine whether Democrats have peaked in Northern Virginia.

If Democrats have maxed out this year in Northern Virginia, the GOP will have a road map for starting to chip away at Democratic margins, allowing Republicans to once again prevail in major statewide races.

But if this year's results in Northern Virginia are just a harbinger of ever-growing Democratic vote margins out of the area, hopes for a GOP comeback could be crushed for future conservative candidates.

The biggest challenge for the GOP over the next several years will be trying to determine the size of the Democratic base in Fairfax, the state's largest jurisdiction, and whether it will continue to expand.

There does appear to be a point of no return for Republicans. It appears that any time Democrats reach 58 percent of the vote in Fairfax, GOP candidates have little chance to succeed statewide.

President Bush carried Fairfax with 53 percent of the vote in 2000. A year later, Sen.-elect Mark R. Warner (D) won Fairfax with 54 percent of the vote in his race for governor, which, coupled with his appeal downstate, propelled him to victory.

Four years later, Kaine's 60 percent in Fairfax was a major factor in gubernatorial victory.

The next year, Webb got 59 percent of the vote in Fairfax, a big enough showing for him to eke out a 9,000-vote victory statewide.

With Obama receiving 60 percent in Fairfax this year, state Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) said Democrats might have found their ceiling in the county.

"I think Democrats are kind of maxed out in Fairfax," Petersen said. "The demographics are going to shift but only so much because the county is built out. I have a hard time seeing it going more than 60 percent, but at least it seems consistent right now."

Petersen said that plenty of Republican-majority precincts remain in southern and western Fairfax. Several traditional Republican precincts in Fairfax that went for Webb flipped back to McCain this year. And U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf proved this year that a GOP candidate can prevail in Fairfax after he easily swept most of the county's precincts in his district.

Even Republican Senate candidate James S. Gilmore III, who never aired a television ad in Northern Virginia, received 30 percent of the vote in Fairfax. Gilmore's margin, given Warner's broad popularity statewide, represents a solid GOP floor in the county that is not likely to shift toward a Democrat anytime soon, meaning GOP candidates could carry the county if they won over independents.

There are also signs that Democrats have found all the votes they can in Alexandria and Arlington.

The Arlington County Democratic Committee set a goal this year of Warner and Obama winning 80 percent of the vote in the county.

When party Chairman Peter Rousselot set the target, he noted that Kaine and Webb got about three-quarters of the vote in their races, and 83 percent of Arlington residents who voted in the Feb. 12 primary took a Democratic ballot.

But Obama and Warner fell short of reaching that goal: Warner received 76 percent of the vote in Arlington.

"It was a stretch of a goal to begin with," Rousselot said after the election. "It was developed to motivate people, and we didn't quite get there."

Rousselot, however, said he is optimistic that Democrats could reach that goal in the future, given continued demographic changes in the region.

In an interview a few days after the election, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who did not seek reelection, said it would be extremely difficult for Democrats to continue replicating their vote totals in the inner suburbs, given the region's diverse economy.

Tens of thousands of Northern Virginians work for defense contractors or at the Pentagon, and they tend to skew more toward the political right. Northern Virginia is also home to thousands of Republicans who work for public officials or conservative causes in Washington. And on the tax issue, the region's wealth still gives the GOP the upper hand, Davis said. (One reason many newcomers to the area choose to live in Virginia is its low tax rate compared with the District and Maryland.)

Davis added, however, "Republicans can no longer be a rural, white Southern party," if they want to halt Democratic momentum in Northern Virginia.

"NoVa is the future," Davis said. "We have got to address that. It is not just new people moving into the state. It is people who did vote Republican who are no longer voting Republican."

The doomsday scenario for Virginia Republicans wanting to win statewide would be for Democratic trends in Northern Virginia to continue unabated for another decade. Officials in both parties will have to determine whether Fairfax and Virginia's inner suburbs will maintain their own culture, identity and politics, or continue to adopt characteristics of neighboring communities in the Washington area.

Given demographic trends and urbanization in Arlington and Alexandria, residents could one day see voting patterns that resemble those of their neighbors across the Potomac River in the District's Ward 2, Foggy Bottom and the Georgetown area, and Ward 3, upper Northwest. If that were to occur, Rousselot's 80 percent goal would be a reality. Obama carried Ward 2 with 86 percent of the vote and Ward 3 with 83 percent.

And Virginia Republicans can only hope Fairfax voters are not on the path of Montgomery County, also a wealthy Washington suburb of about 1 million residents.

Given its strong allegiance to the Democratic Party, it could be easy to forget that President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, carried Montgomery in 1980 and 1984. Since then, Montgomery voters have made a steady, and apparently irreversible, march toward Democratic presidential candidates.

In 1988, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis (D) received 51 percent of the vote in his campaign against George H.W. Bush.

Four years later, Bill Clinton (D) won Montgomery with 55 percent of the vote. When Clinton ran for reelection in 1996, the Democratic ticket received 59 percent of the vote in Montgomery.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore (D) got 62 percent in Montgomery. Four years later, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) received 66 percent of the vote. This year, Obama topped 70 percent of the vote in Montgomery.

That is a trend that should make Virginia Republicans cringe.

By Tim Craig  |  December 4, 2008; 7:53 AM ET
Categories:  Tim Craig  
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