Governing Virginia: A National Litmus Test?
Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election may reflect national political climate, but candidates’ campaigns emphasize importance of local issues
Tomorrow, Virginia voters will elect either Democrat Creigh Deeds or Republican Bob McDonnell as their next governor. Although several independent polls indicate that voter turnout levels will be low, the two gubernatorial elections being held in New Jersey and Virginia have stirred national debate as political spectators read them as a litmus test of President Obama's nationwide approval rating. But the vote also is still important on the state level, as the new governor will be charged with the tough task of pulling Virginia out of its depressed economic state.
Profiling Virginia Politics
Throughout their campaigns, both candidates have stressed their political and personal ties to Virginia and its citizens.
Deeds was born in Richmond and grew up in Bath county. He has since embarked on a long political career in Virginia and is currently the state's senator for the 25th district, which includes Charlottesville and many of the surrounding areas. Deeds has earned the allegiances of urban, rural, conservative and liberal voters, said Isaac Wood, assistant communications director at the University's Center for Politics and a former Cavalier Daily opinion columnist.
"He appeals to people in all different areas of the state," Wood said, adding that Deeds is often considered a moderate, as opposed to liberal, politician.
McDonnell moved to Virginia very shortly after his birth, and moved throughout his early childhood years to Germany and then back to Fairfax County with his father, who was in the Air Force. In 2005 McDonnell ran against Deeds in the race for Attorney General of Virginia, defeating Deeds by a few hundred votes - one of the closest races in Virginia electoral history. Wood said because McDonnell has lived and worked in many different parts of Virginia, he understands what life is like for many Virginians, adding that he has worked hard to portray himself as a "jobs governor."\nVirginia's last two governors - Mark Warner and Tim Kaine - were both Democrats. In last year's presidential election, the commonwealth's electoral votes went to Obama. But despite voters' recent shows of support for Democrats, the GOP remains confident about tomorrow's results, said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Republican Party of Virginia.
"It's been a long time since we've had success in Virginia," he said. "But this year our ideas are being sold by a good, strong candidate, and there's a real sense of enthusiasm and unity around him."\nThroughout their campaigns, McDonnell and Deeds have each tried to pin the other down as a partisan, but, Wood said, "there are not many liberal policies being perused this year." In fact, the National Rifle Association in 2005 endorsed Deeds over McDonnell as the candidate that would best represent gun rights. Since then, however, several of Deeds's polices have become more liberal, although he still remains to the right of most Democrats, Wood said.
The National Off-Season Barometer
Both New Jersey and Virginia have off-season elections - meaning they fall on a year when most states in the country aren't voting - and because of this they often become the subject of national debate, with both Republicans and Democrats trying to prove their parties' popularity. This year, Wood said, Republicans have been working to show that they have recovered from last year's presidential election, while Democrats want to confirm that Virginia's newfound political climate still supports the liberal agenda.
"Whichever candidate wins this year, his party is going to claim that the victory is a reflection of the nation's political mood," Wood said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, for example, recently told the media that Virginia's gubernatorial election would provide a "blueprint" for the future of the Republican Party.
Last Tuesday, Obama joined Deeds at a campaign rally in Northern Virginia, appealing to voters in a region that helped him win Virginia's electoral votes in last year's presidential election. Obama encouraged voters to go back to the polls and vote for Deeds, noting that he would continue the policies of the commonwealth's two previous Democratic governors.
"As a consequence of [Deeds's] choices - choices that improve transportation, that give every child a chance in life, that continue the thoughtful pro-business policy of the Warner-Kaine tradition - Virginia will keep moving down the right path," Obama said.
According to a recent poll by SurveyUSA, however, 95 percent of people who voted for Republican candidate John McCain in last year's presidential election said they will vote for McDonnell, but only 80 percent of Obama supporters said they are planning to vote for Deeds tomorrow, reinforcing Wood's belief that Virginia's election is "a reflection of state instead of national politics."
Local Issues: Transportation and Jobs
Despite its potential importance at the national level, tomorrow's election still heavily revolves around local issues, including transportation, jobs and education.
Deeds Campaign Press Secretary Jared Leopold said one of the biggest reasons that Deeds decided to run for governor was to help Virginia's economy and create more jobs. This focus on improving the economy has been one of McDonnell's major talking points as well.
He is "bursting with ideas for creating jobs," McDonnell Campaign Press Secretary Taylor Thornley said.
Along with limiting spending and keeping taxes to a minimum, McDonnell has spent much of his campaign discussing job creation, Thornley said. McDonnell's plan focuses on increasing the Governor's Opportunity Fund - which is expected to attract new businesses to the commonwealth - and giving tax credits to businesses that can create at least 50 new jobs, Thornley said.
But Deeds has accused McDonnell of playing up his commitment to job creation.
"Candidate McDonnell talks a lot about job creation but legislator McDonnell [has] never introduced a bill to create jobs,"Deeds said in a recent debate in Richmond.
Deeds' plan also involves an expansion of the Governor's Opportunity Fund to make Virginia an attractive, easy place for businesses to thrive. But, small businesses are the focus of Deeds' job plan, which is reflected in the proposed Deeds policy that states, "create a single job, get a tax credit," Leopold said.
In addition to their discussion of jobs, both candidates have said Virginia's transportation system needs to be re-thought. They have both been able to agree that having too many bridges is unsafe and that the current system does not provide enough funding for regular road repairs or construction of new roads and transit systems.
To fund needed improvements of the state's transit infrastructure, Deeds has said he would not exclude the possibility of a gas tax.
"The plan is to sit down with a bi-partisan committee and hammer out a plan that will make the transportation system work," Leopold said, noting that a small gas tax might be a beneficial solution that would pay off in the long run.
McDonnell, however, has accused Deeds of not having a comprehensive plan. McDonnell plans to fund transportation reform by issuing the $3 billion in transportation bonds that were approved by the General Assembly two years ago, by making the Transportation Department more efficient, and by trying to cultivate relationships with private companies, Thornley said.
Both candidates have said the availability of education - especially higher education - is important to Virginia's future, particularly in relation to job creation and economic growth. During his campaign Deeds has promoted a plan called "Better Schools. Better Jobs," while, Thornley said, McDonnell has viewed education as "the key to a strong economy in Virginia." But the candidates have different stances on the growth of Virginia's higher education system in the future and how it could help Virginia's economy.
Deeds's education plan, for instance, is based around scholarships awarded to students who maintain a B or better average through high school, Leopold said. If the plan goes into effect, students who are willing to commit to working for two years in a profession that is "beneficial to the community" would see half of their tuition paid for by the commonwealth.
The hope of Deeds' plan, called the Virginia Forward Scholarship plan, is that more available education would lead to a stronger workforce and an improved economy, while the new graduates would provide much-needed help to places with few resources. Graduates would fulfill their service by spending time pursuing one of several professions, such as teaching in an under-served school, working in hospitals or serving as firefighters or policemen. Tuition has become, in the past several years, a major issue for many families hoping to send their children to college in Virginia, Leopold said, "but by the time [Deeds] is done ... there will be nobody that's blocked from going to college just because they can't afford it."
McDonnell's higher education plan, meanwhile, is part of his broader goal of making "economic opportunity and sustainability possible for people in every part of Virginia," Thornley said, adding that McDonnell plans for state colleges to graduate an additional 100,000 students during the next 15 years.
McDonnell's plan would consolidate or eliminate some programs at universities and put more emphasis on math, science and technology. These are the subjects "that prepare students who are going to work for a stronger economy," Thornley said.
McDonnell emphasized this point in a talk about education at George Mason University.
"We need to make it fashionable and cool to be a geek," he said.
McDonnell also visited the University to talk about technology's role in education. He said during the visit that high-tech equipment could reduce college expenses that are not included in tuition, such as textbooks. For example, McDonnell has met with students and faculty at the Darden School to discuss the possibility of using Kindles, Amazon's electronic reading device, in place of many textbooks, Thornley said.
Moreover, McDonnell plans to stress workforce development in higher education, Thornley said. This emphasis means that he plans to increase funding for job training programs and encourage partnerships between public and private institutions. This relationship could mean increased funding for higher education and graduates ready to take on careers in private businesses.
Ultimately, these local issues may be far more important to Virginians than Obama's popularity in deciding the outcome of the governor's race.
Although "some are tempted to see it as a litmus test, the election is expressly about the state of Virginia," Murtaugh said.