Virginia becomes key battleground for both presidency and control of Senate

These days, as Virginia goes, so could the nation.

The state is a hotly contested battleground at the presidential level and could determine control of the Senate. Politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize how crucial it is for their party's success.

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“There is a possibility that Virginia could decide the presidential election and who has the majority of the Senate,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) told reporters Friday morning.

President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) both recognize the importance of the state. Obama kicked off his reelection campaign there in early May, and Romney made a point to be in the state on the same day to attack Obama’s economic record.

“This may well be the state that decides who the next president is,” Romney said during that swing.

It will be tough for Romney to win the presidency without carrying the state. If Obama’s numbers also hold up in the Mountain West he can afford to lose both Florida and Ohio and still win reelection. Conversely, if Obama is losing Virginia he’ll need to carry one of those states, where polls show he’s not doing as well.

Virginia had long been a Republican stronghold, but in recent years minority growth in Northern Virginia as well as a shift of moderates and independents in the region towards Democrats put the state in play in the last decade. Obama carried Virginia by a wider margin than the perennial swing states of Florida and Ohio, and his numbers have held up better in both states. Most polls show him with a narrow lead over Romney in the state.

Helping Obama is Virginia’s ongoing demographic shift. Northern Virginia’s population boom accounted for more than 40 percent of the state's growth in the last decade, and three quarters of the state's growth came from minorities. Virginia’s Hispanic population nearly doubled to 8 percent of the state population, and the Asian population grew by two thirds to 5.5 percent of the population. The state is also one fifth African American, a big help to the first black president.

Another good sign for Obama: The state’s unemployment rate is at 5.6 percent, one of the lowest of the swing states. He’s also buoyed by the fact that Northern Virginia heavily relies on federal government jobs, making the state less receptive to Republican attacks on big government.

But Northern Virginia only comprises about one third of the state, and southwestern Virginia, a culturally conservative area that was once a Democratic stronghold, has trended sharply away from the party in recent years. The Appalachian portion of the state voted out centrist Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) in 2010 after 30 years in Congress partly because of his support for climate change legislation (the region is heavy on coal mines), and gave huge margins to Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in his 2009 election.

“I think it’s going to be a landslide for Romney in Southwest Virginia — it was a heavy margin for McCain but it’s going to be a landslide this time,” said University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato.

Romney has used the state’s right to work law and limited union presence against Obama, attacking him in the state for being close to “union bosses.” That dynamic could be an important one to watch, as a collective bargaining fight likely benefits Obama in Ohio but hurts him here, and vice versa for Romney.

While both sides will need to run up their numbers in their corners of the state, the Tidewater and Hampton Roads region in the state’s southeast is the true swing area of the state. Obama narrowly won that area’s congressional district in 2008, although the large number of military bases and a huge population of retired armed forces members make it challenging for him to replicate his performance there.

The state will likely see a huge infusion of ad spending. Outside groups have already spent millions on the air, and Obama and Romney have been on TV as well. Virginia is one of the states where airtime will likely be completely bought up long before the election actually occurs.

The state’s nip-and-tuck Senate race could also prove key in what is expected to be a closely divided Senate. Both candidates are well known: Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), a close Obama ally and recent head of the Democratic National Committee, is facing off against former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who was also governor of the state. Polls have shown the race neck-and-neck.

The two have run very different campaigns. While Kaine mostly embraces Obama he has at times pointed out his differences with the president and sought to highlight his centrist, independent streak.

He twisted and turned to avoid embracing gay marriage shortly before Obama announced his support of the policy, and said Obama’s exemption for requiring contraception coverage should have been a bit broader when it was first announced. He also believes that the Bush-era tax cuts should be allowed to expire for families who make more than $500,000, while Obama has said in the past he wanted it to expire for those above $250,000.

Allen, on the other hand, has made his whole campaign about tying Kaine to Obama, a strategy that will only work if Obama is losing the state. He emphasized that point again on Friday, calling Kaine “A handpicked chairman of the DNC and a hand-picked senator for Virginia” and pivoting into a quick attack on President Obama during his speech to the religious right audience at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual confab in Washington, D.C.

Most strategists expect Kaine to outperform Obama by a few points, so if Obama is winning the state it’s likely Kaine is as well. Even if Obama narrowly loses the state, Kaine will still have a shot.

“It’s impossible to picture an Obama-Allen voter,” said Sabato. “Kaine will run a few points ahead of Obama… I have met moderate Republicans in Northern Virginia who are voting for Romney and Kaine, they’re mad at Obama but they can’t stand Allen. That could make the difference.”

Virginia’s House races aren’t as competitive — Republicans pushed through a crafty gerrymander that likely will give them eight of the state’s 11 congressional seats. But Rep. Scott Riggell (R-Va.) could be vulnerable in the Tidewater region. His district went narrowly for President Obama in 2008, and while Romney will likely carry it this time Democrats have a strong recruit in Paul Hirschbiel, the wealthy former business partner of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Warner is by far the state’s most popular politician and has pledged to help his old friend as much as he can. The race is likely to be an expensive one: Both Hirschbiel and Riggell are self-funding candidates that can spend millions on the race. But Riggell starts off with the edge in the district.

This story was updated at 1:37 p.m.