There was a sudden change in Obama’s Virginia itinerary this week. The White House initially told local Democrats that the president’s bus tour would stop in four communities: Danville, Newport News, Fredericksburg, and Charlottesville.
To the White House, the cities represented friendly territory. In 2008, Obama carried Danville with 59 percent, Newport News with 64 percent, Fredericksburg with 64 percent, and Charlottesville with 78 percent. But Virginia has state legislative elections this year, and the initial Obama list coincided almost perfectly with a selection of incumbent Democrats who are desperate to distance themselves from the national party.
From the perspective of the state-senate races in play this November, the White House couldn’t have chosen worse spots to hold events — or better spots, in the eyes of the state GOP. The stakes are considerable: Republicans currently need to win two seats to tie control of the chamber and have Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling resolve tied votes; winning three additional seats would give Republicans outright control. Virginia Republicans consider eleven seats to be “in play,” and are feeling good about their odds of a takeover at this point.
“It’s obvious that the Democrats have been scrambling,” chuckles J. Garren Shipley, the Virginia GOP’s communications director. “To leak and then scrap a four-city tour is more than a little telling. If the White House had been coordinating with people on the ground, they would have known that their state Senate candidates in all those areas are in serious trouble, and that Obama is in serious trouble there, too.”
(It undoubtedly helps to have a Republican governor whose approval rating ranges from 62 to 70 percent — Bob McDonnell features heavily in ads for his party’s candidates this cycle. “If you didn’t know better, you would think Bob McDonnell is running for reelection, and some other guys pop up on the screen every now and then,” laughs one Virginia Republican.)
In the south-central corner of the state, around Danville, redistricting has pitted two incumbent state senators, Republican Bill Stanley and Democrat Roscoe Reynolds, against each other. Stanley has been doing everything possible to tie Reynolds to Obama, calling him “just another politician voting for tax hikes and increased spending just like the Democrats in Washington.” Stanley’s attack ad depicts Obama next to Reynolds; one can imagine the Republican’s elation at the thought of Obama popping into the district and touting his newest big-spending, tax-hiking jobs plan.
Just outside Danville, Republicans are running ads explicitly tying Virginia House of Delegates minority leader Ward Armstrong to the president — “If Ward Armstrong thinks you need Obama, do you really need Ward Armstrong?” — and the Democrat has felt compelled to immediately respond with an ad of his own.
“Charles Poindexter is comparing me to Barack Obama,” Armstrong says in the ad. “That’s a stretch, Charles. I’m pro-life, pro-gun, and I always put Virginia first. That’s why I opposed the cap-and-trade bill. Sure we need renewable energy, but you don’t do it by raising electric rates.” Armstrong’s district consists of Patrick County and parts of Carroll and Henry County, all carried fairly easily by John McCain in 2008, and part of the city of Martinsville, which Obama carried with nearly 64 percent.
Obama’s Fredericksburg stop would have taken him to the district of incumbent Democratic state senator Edd Houck, whose district Republicans consider to be winnable territory because of a strong candidate, former U.S. Army Ranger Bryce Reeves.
Last week Houck sent Obama a letter, expressing frustration over the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s denial of Virginia’s application for individual assistance for those affected by the August earthquake.
“Earlier this week, you received a letter from Governor McDonnell. I must echo the comments he made,” Houck wrote. “When times are tough, individuals turn to government, whether it is federal, state or local, for assistance. . . . Unfortunately, when aid is most needed in this specific instance, the federal government is not doing its job.”
Houck is attempting to run against “Washington” in his ads. “With Washington politics spiraling out of control, our state senator is grounded in Virginia. . . . He’ll work with anyone, or stand up to anyone to do what’s right.” There is nothing in Houck’s ad that indicates he is a Democrat.
Finally, Obama’s initial Newport News stop would have taken him to the district of incumbent senator John C. Miller, whom the Virginia GOP is hitting for proposing gas-tax hikes, a sales tax on cars, and new tolls.
Obama’s revised itinerary now includes a high school in Emporia on Tuesday — a community that is 56 percent African-American — Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, and a fire station in Chesterfield County outside Richmond on Wednesday. Hampton is in one of four state senate districts where Republicans are not fielding a candidate.
Give the Obama White House credit for being willing to make one stop outside their comfort zone; Chesterfield County is a heavily Republican region. The Democratic candidate in this district, David Bernard, could be seen as something of a sacrificial lamb; in the early 1980s he spent seven months in federal prison camp for misdemeanor possession after federal agents found marijuana plants on his farm.
Obama was always going to have troubles in the more Republican-leaning parts of the state. A vivid example: State Sen. Phil Puckett, who praised Obama in the past, recently announced that he would not be supporting Obama for reelection because of his regulations on the coal industry. But even in the bluest corners of the state, Democrats are wary of their party’s reputation in the current political environment. George Barker, a Democrat running in northern Virginia, is running an ad that boasts that he “passed more than 20 bills by working with Republicans, Democrats, and Gov. Bob McDonnell — to create jobs, help veterans afford college, and balance our budget without a dime in new taxes.” Like Houck’s ad, nothing identifies the candidate as a Democrat.
There are other indicators of a disconnect between the Obama campaign and local Democrats. The president’s campaign operation, Obama for America, has been gearing up, recruiting volunteers for their 2012 operation. In these calls to supporters and meetings, state legislative elections in 2011 usually go unmentioned.
“Virginia elections always seem to intertwine state and federal issues,” says Tucker Martin, communications director for Governor McDonnell. “That’s probably partly due to our proximity to Washington and partly due to our unique off-year state election cycle. Regardless of why it occurs, the fact is it always does. The two issue sets mingle. And to the extent that is occurring this year, it is clearly not good for Virginia Democrats. Watching the campaign unfold, it does appear many Democratic candidates are far more interested in playing up their work with our administration in Richmond, rather than their connection to the administration in Washington. That speaks volumes.”
Tuesday morning brought news that the Democrats’ senatorial candidate in 2012, Tim Kaine, would not be appearing with the president on his bus trip — even though Kaine, governor of the state from 2005 to 2009, was Obama’s appointee to head the DNC.
With this act of ingratitude, one might easily conclude that no elected official in Virginia is willing to be seen with the president, but there is one surprising exception. At the event at the military base in Hampton touting tax credits for hiring veterans, Obama will be joined by . . . McDonnell, the Republican governor.
Perhaps Obama is hoping some of McDonnell’s popularity rubs off on him.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.