Mar 22, 2009

To Win Virginia, Parties Must Court Independents

To Win Virginia, Parties Must Court Independents 

In eight months Virginians will choose a new governor. If history is a guide, the election will be decided by the almost one-third of voters who describe themselves as "independents."

The math is simple. Neither major political party possesses majority support in Virginia, so virtually all statewide elections and many local contests are decided by independents. These Virginians eschew partisan labels and proudly "vote for the person, not the party." They swing between Democratic and Republican candidates from election to election based on the contenders' character, experience, policy ideas, and other attributes.

Reflecting skepticism toward parties, these swing voters tend to favor the checks and balances inherent in divided government. This may help explain why the political party controlling the White House has not captured the Virginia governor's mansion in more than three decades. It also partly explains why Virginia's congressional delegation, State Senate, and House of Delegates have experienced changes in majority control in recent decades -- some multiple times.

With the two Virginia parties evenly matched and independents holding the balance, the Old Dominion has become one of the most competitive political systems in the country.

As the focus turns to this year's contest for governor, the key question is how the two political parties -- their leaders and candidates -- will communicate with this decisive bloc of independent-minded voters.

Within each of the Virginia parties, a robust debate on this subject is under way.

During most of this decade, leading national Democratic and Republican strategists pursued high-decibel, polarizing approaches designed to intensify and maximize support among the party's most loyal adherents. Examples abounded where the tactic succeeded.

An unintended consequence of this "base-motivating" approach, however, was the increasing irritation -- and eventual alienation -- of many independents. Unaligned voters grew tired of the overheated and often mean-spirited rhetoric they heard coming from the two warring camps of political insiders. They began to regard such partisanship as synonymous with putting political self-interest ahead of the broader public interest.

This negative reaction created new opportunities for politicians willing to reach across party lines. Doing so signaled the rejection of discredited "politics-as-usual" and pegged a politician as a reformer interested in bridging differences to solve problems and produce results. It separated him or her from the general run of pols who seemed perennially preoccupied with partisan agendas and ideological litmus tests.

Enter Barack Obama. Fully recognizing the cresting dissatisfaction with Washington's partisan dysfunction, he made bipartisan conciliation the thematic foundation of his campaign for change. Taking a page from the playbook of successful purple-state Democrats such as Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, he attracted strong independent support and achieved unexpected breakthroughs in states previously dominated by GOP presidential contenders, including Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana.

Not everyone is impressed with this inclusive approach. Some partisan true-believers denigrate conciliatory appeals across party lines as evidence of philosophical fuzziness or, worse, a sellout of principle.

Certainly some successful cross-party appeals have been made by politicians who styled themselves as moderates. In Virginia, Charles Robb, John Warner, Douglas Wilder, and Mark Warner come to mind. But the notion that inclusiveness and bipartisanship are solely the currency of political centrists ignores history.

Among Republicans, there is the enduring example of Ronald Reagan, the conservative champion who was so successful at appealing across party lines that a whole bloc of voters became known as "Reagan Democrats."

The architect of the modern Virginia GOP, Richard Obenshain, was another staunch conservative who stressed idea-oriented outreach to Democrats and independents as his party-building mantra. And the most successful Republican governor in Virginia's modern history, George Allen, gained office with the help of an unprecedented number of Democratic and independent voters and then maneuvered his far-reaching reforms through a legislature controlled by the opposing party.

On the Democratic side, President Obama himself illustrates the compatibility of bipartisan im agery and strong opinions. His record as one of the U.S. Senate's leading liberals did not prevent him from mounting a presidential campaign that transcended partisan divisions. Nor has last year's conciliatory campaign rhetoric posed much of an impediment to the new president's pursuit of a stunningly liberal agenda.

Virginia's Democratic politicians have done a better job recently of relating to independent voters, and they have an impressive string of statewide victories since 2000 to show for it.

Appealing by necessity across party lines in a bid to reverse the GOP winning streak of the 1990s, Democrats came upon the essential and ironic truth about the Virginia electorate: The swing voters who decide Virginia elections like divided government but not divisive politics.

This subtle distinction is one that leaders and candidates in both parties seem to figure out, forget, and rediscover in cycles that correspond -- not coincidentally -- to the ebb and flow of party fortunes in this competitive commonwealth.

For their part, Virginia Democrats, flush with success, seem poised to tack in a more partisan direction again.

Gov. Kaine is heading across the Potomac to serve as the national Democrats' partisan-in-chief, while Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic national chairman renowned for bashing Republicans, seeks the party's nod for governor.

For McAuliffe and his two rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, state Sen. Creigh Deeds and former Del. Brian Moran, the task at hand calls for anything but bipartisan conciliation. Their priority has to be winning the hearts and minds of the Democratic die-hards who will vote in the June gubernatorial primary.

Meanwhile, newly ensconced U.S. Sen. Mark Warner struggles to reconcile what may prove irreconcilable: the demands of a liberal Senate Democratic leadership committed to dramatic new rules favoring organized labor -- and the wishes of moderate-conservative voters back home who prize the job-producing benefits of Virginia's Right to Work law.

On the Republican side, internal differences have flared into the open, but the lopsided battle suggests there is more consensus than conflict.

The embattled party chairman, Del. Jeff Frederick, faces a host of criticisms of his managerial methods and retains few prominent supporters. The party's grassroots and elected officials complain in unison that the young chairman's punch-in-the-face partisanship and polarizing utterances deepen the damage to the already impaired Republican brand.

A different approach -- more akin to that which produced Virginia Republican victories in decades past -- is being advocated by statewide standard-bearers Bob McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell, Rep. Eric Cantor, and other GOP congressional, legislative, and party leaders. Taking a page from Obenshain in the 1970s, Reagan in the 1980s, and Allen in the 1990s, they stress sound reforms and practical solutions as the proper expression of commonsense conservatism. Winning converts for Republican principles and ideas, they contend, is the essential business of a confident and growing party.

In seeking to give the GOP a more optimistic, inclusive, problem-solving image, McDonnell -- the former attorney general who is running for governor -- appears to enjoy an unusual consensus among his party's conservative factions and more moderate wing, all of whom seem eager to win again. Seizing the opportunity, he aims to reconnect with independent voters, restore the party's winning center-right coalition, and rekindle enthusiasm among business donors, without whose aid Republican candidates are likely to be far outspent in the fall statewide and legislative contests.

The differing tactical approaches within each party provide the backdrop this spring as Democrats lock horns in a competitive gubernatorial primary and Republicans wage an internal struggle over the party chairmanship. The resolution of these clarifying contests likely will decide each party's direction for the foreseeable future, and so its attractiveness to swing voters and donors.

Virginians may or may not choose divided government again in November, but history suggests they will reject divisive politics. Independents are likely to go for the unifying reformer who offers the best solutions to the challenges Virginians face.

And, as the independents go, so will go Virginia.