Virginia One Year Out: Up for Grabs

200 votes were enough to flip control of state Senate

By Mark Murray
|  Wednesday, Nov 16, 2011  |  Updated 4:39 PM EDT
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In Va.: Whole Foods vs Cracker Barrel

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About 200 votes.

That, ultimately, was the difference in the deciding race that flipped control of Virginia’s state Senate to Republicans last week -- giving the GOP control of all levels of state government for just the second time since Reconstruction.

And less than a year out to Election Day 2012, that kind of razor-thin margin could also decide the presidential contest in Virginia, as well as the state’s U.S. Senate race to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA).

“I think it’s absolutely going to be a competitive battleground state,” said Phil Cox, the top political adviser to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).

Starting 10 years ago, Democrats began racking up political wins in Virginia, first with Mark Warner’s gubernatorial victory in 2001, then with Tim Kaine succeeding him four years later, and then with Webb’s narrow Senate victory in 2006.

Then, in 2008, Warner won the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, and Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia in a presidential contest since 1964.

But after that, the political winds have been at the Republican Party’s back -- with McDonnell’s blow-out gubernatorial victory in 2009, with the GOP picking up three U.S. House seats in 2010, and with it gaining control of the state Senate (where Republican Lt. Gov Bill Bolling gets the tie-breaking vote in the 20-20 chamber).

And Republicans believe that momentum could carry over to next year’s presidential contest. “I do think the fundamentals are good for the Republican nominee,” Cox said. “Independents have turned away from Obama in Virginia, and they are very supportive of the McDonnell agenda.”

According to a Quinnipiac University poll last month, 45 percent of Virginians (and just 38 percent of independents) approved of the president’s job, and Obama was essentially tied with Republicans Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in hypothetical general-election match-ups in the state.

In next year’s Senate race, the poll also found Tim Kaine (D) running neck and neck with former U.S. Sen. George Allen (R).

But Cox also cautions that a presidential election will bring more voters to the polls -- many of them Democrats -- than we saw turn out in 2009, 2010 and 2011. “As Republicans, we need to be very cognizant of that fact,” he said.

Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee, who is advising Kaine’s Senate bid, doesn’t believe the Republican Party’s two state Senate pick-ups (which flipped control of the chamber) changed the state’s political dynamics.

"The votes in last week's election were very much in line with statewide trends," Elleithee said. "Democrats did well where we need to in statewide campaigns; Republicans did well where they need to; and the battleground areas were just that -- battlegrounds."

Elleithee says that the deciding state Senate race -- Bryce Reeves’ (R) narrow victory over incumbent state Sen. Edward Houck (D) -- fit that statewide trend.

Houck won Albemarle County (outside of Charlottesville) and Fredericksburg City, while Reeves won the rural areas in between.

“Democrats are holding their ground anywhere there is a Whole Foods and are getting throttled anywhere there is a Cracker Barrel,” said David Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

And while he explains that Election Day 2011 in Virginia wasn’t as bad for Democrats as some had predicted, Democrats need to improve their standing -- particularly in the rural downstate region -- to carry the state in 2012.

“Obama is clearly a drag downstate, more than he is in [the D.C. suburbs of] Northern Virginia,” Wasserman said.

“Democrats probably need to see about five points improvement in Obama’s approval [rating] to have a chance to win the state in the presidential or in Kaine’s Senate bid,” he added.

That said, Virginia political scientist Bob Holsworth emphasizes that Virginia remains among “the most important battleground states” of 2012.

“If [Democrats] can get their voters out again, this remains a very, very competitive state."


Mark Murray is the NBC News Deputy Political Director and an NBC News First Read analyst. Read the national edition of First Read featuring Chuck Todd, Mark and Domenico Montanaro on msnbc.com.

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