Battleground Virginia

When Barack Obama won Virginia in 2008 (by a healthy six percentage points, nearly his national margin), alarm bells went off in many Republican strategic circles. After all, the Old Dominion had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, spurning southerners like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton even in good years for the Donkey Party. Since Democrats also held both U.S. Senate seats and had won the previous two gubernatorial races, it was obviously time to revisit the assumption the state was part of a Solid Republican South (except, of course, for Florida and also North Carolina, where Obama’s victory was even more of a shock).

So there were many sighs of Republican relief when Bob McDonnell handily won the governorship back for the GOP easily in 2009, and then Republicans picked off three U.S. House seats in 2010. Things, it seemed were returning to normal.

Or maybe not. The RealClearPolitics average of recent general election polls in Virginia shows Obama with a 2.4% lead in the state; the most recent survey, by PPP, has Obama up by eight points. The Senate race between former Gov. and DNC chairman Tim Kaine and former Sen. George Allen is, and has been, dead even. And looking ahead, an early PPP poll of the 2013 governor’s race in Virginia shows Democratic Sen. Mark Warner stomping everyone in sight if he chooses to return to Richmond.

If Mark Warner wants to be the next Governor of Virginia…he’s probably going to be the next Governor of Virginia. PPP’s newest poll finds him blowing away the Republican field of candidates with a 53-33 lead over Ken Cuccinelli, a 53-32 advantage over Bill Bolling, and a 58-19 edge over Tareq Salahi.

Warner continues to be the state’s most popular politician with a 52% approval rating to only 26% of voters who disapprove of him. He takes 13-29% of the Republican vote in these three match ups while losing only 2-4% of the Democratic vote, and he has a persistent double digit lead with independents as well. At this point the office looks to be Warner’s for the taking.

Even more worrisome for the GOP is the fact that in the PPP survey conservative darling Cuccinnelli has a large lead over the potential primary field, yet looks exceptionally weak for a general election even if Warner doesn’t run. Cucinelli trails Terry McAuliffe by five points and Tom Perriello by three, despite a gigantic name ID advantage.

So any way you slice it, Virginia remains a battleground state, and a big vulnerability in the southern fortress the GOP had supposedly built for itself. Obama can definitely win in November without Virginia, but it’s not at all clear Mitt Romney can do so as well.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.