Eye on 2009

Virginia’s gubernatorial election has both parties on edge, with most observers viewing it as the first referendum on President Obama’s policies.

Republicans are watching to see if there’s a backlash against Obama, who was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in more than 30 years, while Democrats are waiting to see if their gains in the Old Dominion continue.

Both parties will pour resources into the gubernatorial race — Obama has offered his support to Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds — while Republicans hope to lay the groundwork to retake several House seats.

Virginia has three freshman Democratic lawmakers, two of whom are leading targets for the GOP: Reps. Tom Perriello and Glenn Nye.

Republicans, in particular, would like revenge against Perriello, who upset six-term Rep. Virgil Goode in one of the closest elections of 2008.

The GOP also think they have a good shot at unseating Nye, and some say he could overtake Perriello as the party’s No. 1 target in the state. Nye knocked off two-term Rep. Thelma Drake last year by five points in a district that barely went to Obama.

If Republicans sense a trend breaking their way, they’ll add Democratic Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyOvernight Energy: Dems raise new questions about Pruitt's security | EPA rules burning wood is carbon neutral | Fourth GOP lawmaker calls for Pruitt's ouster | Court blocks delay to car efficiency fines Dems: Pruitt’s office security sweep was subpar Republicans refuse to back opioids bill sponsored by vulnerable Dem MORE to their target list. But they admit it could be a long shot. Connolly defeated his GOP competition by 11 points in a district that solidly supported Obama.

But Perriello and Nye are seen as within the GOP’s grasp.

“These are the canaries in the coal mine,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University. “Were 2006 and 2008 aberrations, or is there a fundamental shift in the state? These are the districts that would be the first to go back to Republicans.”

Republicans attribute Perriello’s win to larger turnout among black and young voters at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — an occurrence that might not repeat itself when Obama is not on the ticket.

Perriello’s district, warned James Madison University political scientist Bob Roberts, was gerrymandered so it would always be held by a Republican. “There is no reason they wouldn’t take back this district,” he said.

Indeed, Republicans have dominated the 5th district in recent cycles. Until last year, Goode had cruised to reelection with at least 59 percent of the vote in his previous reelection bids. Republican presidential nominee John McCainJohn Sidney McCainManchin, Donnelly back Pompeo This week: Senate barrels toward showdown over Pompeo Romney forced into GOP primary for Utah Senate nomination MORE (Ariz.) carried the district with 51 percent last year, and George W. Bush carried it by more than 10 points in 2000 and 2004.

But Republican recruitment appears to be on hold while Goode decides whether he’ll run again.

Goode said he is “taking a serious look at it” and has kept his Federal Election Commission account open. He is continuing to travel the district but said he does not know when he’ll decide on a rematch.

If Goode passes on the race, and some Republicans believe he will, the GOP is excited about either Virginia Del. Rob Bell or Virginia state Sen. Robert HurtRobert HurtDemocrat defeats controversial chair of House Wall Street subpanel Republican groups launch final ad blitz in key House battlegrounds Armed protester stands outside Dem's office for 12 hours MORE. Bell has met with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). And Hurt said he would only consider the race if Goode opts to stay out of it.

Democrats point out that Perriello outperformed Obama in the district and, as a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) Frontline Program, has launched aggressive outreach and fundraising operations. Perriello knows he’s a target, and his staff pointed to the almost $223,000 he raised last quarter as an indication he is taking the race seriously.

And one source close to Perriello said his team would welcome a rematch with Goode, who made several gaffes in last year’s race.

Nye is next on Republicans’ list. 

But the GOP appears to be having trouble recruiting a candidate. Drake isn’t running again. State Sen. Ken Stolle, who was mentioned early as a possible candidate, opted against the race. Former Amerigroup CEO Jeffrey McWaters is also passing on it, as is Virginia Beach Councilmember Rosemary Wilson.

Only Chuck Smith, an attorney and former Marine, has filed paperwork for the seat. Richard Maddox, a former city council member and businessman; Virginia Beach Councilman Ron Villaneuva; and local car dealer Scott Riegell are other names that have surfaced.

Republicans claim they aren’t worried about recruitment and said they are currently meeting with several possibilities. They also note that since Virginia is focused on the 2009 state elections, it will likely take longer to nail down candidates for the 2010 cycle.

Like Perriello, Nye, another Frontline member, is ratcheting up his fundraising. He raised nearly $381,000 in the first quarter, among the highest for any freshman Democrat. Nye’s staff also points out that the 2nd district, which is composed of southeast Virginia, is more independently minded than most realize.

Indeed, the 2nd district isn’t as predictably Republican as Perriello’s district, Roberts, the James Madison professor, noted. Nye’s district is more fluid, as a lot of military families move in and out of the area.

“That district is much more in flux,” Roberts said. “It is much more urban that Perriello’s district and there is a lot more non-Virginians that vote there.”

And while the GOP would love to knock off Connolly, they admit it would be their biggest reach. Keith Fimian, the 2008 candidate, is said to be considering another run, but most observers believe the district has turned blue and the Republicans were only holding the 11th district because of former Rep. Tom Davis’s (R) incumbency. Davis retired last year. 

Connolly, who is the president of the freshman Democratic class, is ready for all challengers.

“I always run like the devil’s at my heels,” he said. “I don’t know any other way to run for office.

“I take the threat very seriously,” he added.