Obama wins Virginia as voters pack polls

-A A +A

Sen. Barack Obama may not have carried the Twin County region against Sen. John McCain, but he won Virginia's 13 electoral votes Tuesday, capping a remarkable shift in the state's politics.

Virginia went for a Democratic candidate for the first time since 1964.

In barely two years, both Republican U.S. senators have been replaced by Democrats, and back-to-back Democrats have been elected governor.

Obama received 52 percent of the popular vote in Virginia, to McCain's 48 percent.

McCain won Galax with 55 percent of the vote, Grayson with 63 percent and Carroll with 66 percent.

But, voters in Galax, Carroll and Grayson followed the state trend as they overwhelmingly backed Democratic contender — and former governor — Mark Warner in his bid for the U.S. Senate. Warner rode a wave of bipartisan support in his race against former Republican governor Jim Gilmore.

Long Lines, Eager Voters

Tuesday's election was marked by high voter turnout both nationally and locally, with the number of registered voters going to the polls ranging between 64 and 70 percent in Galax, Carroll and Grayson.

At Galax's East Precinct — the Mink-Pontiac dealership on Glendale Road — voters lined up out into the parking lot, through the doors and snaked through a triple line inside to wait more than an hour to reach the polls.

Jack Davis, who's worked at Mink's for about 20 years, said it was the biggest crowd he's seen. "There were five people waiting at the door when we opened up at 5 a.m.," an hour before polls opened.

"It's been steady all day," Davis said. "And it's gone smoothly — no hollerin' or fussin.'"

Outside, one voter stood in that long line without complaint. "I think it's good to see this many people here," he said. "It's great to see people so passionate about it."

Galax Registrar Stacey Reavis said that by noon on Tuesday, 1,317 of the city's 3,834 registered voters had cast ballots.

Standing near the line at Mink's, McCain campaign volunteer Brandon Farmer handed out sample ballots and chatted with voters.

“This is what you want to see,” he said, looking at the line. “It's a good problem to have, really. I've always said that it doesn't matter so much who you vote for as it does that you vote. Pick a side and vote — that's what democracy is about.”

Election officials said they had little problem with voters showing up with improper ID, but many had been purged from the system because they hadn't voted in the past seven years.

Making History

When Obama and Warner take office in January, Virginia will no longer be considered a safe Republican state on the red and blue election strategy maps.

"The fact that Obama has been able to break a 44-year losing streak just shows how purple Virginia has become," said Robert Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University.

To a large extent, Virginia today is a much different state than it was eight years ago, when it went for George W. Bush. The population has ballooned by about 10 percent, or 700,000 people, since 2000, mostly driven by the explosion of the affluent, more liberal Washington, D.C., suburbs, according to census figures.

An influx of immigration also has made the state more diverse, a trend that has benefited the Democrats.

And even though McCain drubbed Obama in Southwest Virginia, Obama's visits to Lebanon and Roanoke helped boost his statewide vote total, said state Democratic Party Chairman Richard Cranwell.

"His message resonates in Southwest Virginia and Southside," particularly with voters who have been hard hit with layoffs and plant closings, Cranwell said.

“I'm really impressed with the outcome,” said Mary Lily Nuckolls, who has served as chairperson and co-chair of the Grayson Democratic Party since 1986. “This is a Republican area, but we had more voters for Obama than we thought we would have. We're tickled over that.”

Nuckolls said she thought Obama gave a great acceptance speech on Tuesday, “and McCain was the gentleman I thought he always was. I think McCain and Obama will work together to do what's best for the country.”

The state's demographic changes alone don't explain the half-million new voter registrations that flooded registrars' offices across Virginia this year, suggesting an unheard-of interest in the election. Locally, Galax registered about 190 new voters since the beginning of 2008, Grayson registered 495 and Carroll County registered about 1,000.

Obama's significant financial and organizational advantage made it possible for him to stoke that enthusiasm. For example, the national Obama campaign set up a local headquarters in Galax, provided workers to staff it and sent party operatives like former Democratic National Convention chairman Terry McAuliffe to visit. Meanwhile, the local McCain office down the street was a purely volunteer effort that was open only one hour a day and appeared to get little support from the national campaign.

“America spoke loudly for a change, and a change is certainly coming,” said Michael Stevens, chairman of the Galax Republican Party, said on Wednesday. “I respect the office of the president and I hope all show respect for it and the man who has earned it.

"I, for one, will support Obama on the issues that I firmly believe in and hope to be able to dissent without retribution."

Stevens thanked all the volunteers that have helped. "They did all they could do on both sides,” he said. “Now we need to put this behind us and move forward.”

Red State Goes Blue

Fifty years ago, Virginians clashed bitterly over massive resistance to court-ordered desegregation. And until Tuesday, the state had voted Republican in 10 straight presidential elections. But in 1989, Virginia chose the country's first black elected governor, Doug Wilder, a Democrat. Now Virginia voters, both white and black, have helped elect the nation's first black president.

Virginia had been sliding toward the Democrats over the past few years. In the 2001 governor's race, Mark Warner beat Republican Mark Earley by about 5 percentage points. In 2005, another Democrat, Tim Kaine, beat Jerry Kilgore by almost 6 points. A year later, Jim Webb barely defeated George Allen, an incumbent Republican, for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Virginians can now expect national political parties to lavish attention and advertising money on them in national elections.

Already, this election cycle brought more attention to Virginia than many Virginians were used to. Obama made at least 11 trips to Virginia, visiting 15 cities. He even closed his campaign with an 85,000-person rally in Manassas, which, until recently, had been a Republican stronghold.

McCain visited at least five times, holding events in six cities. The vice presidential candidates also stumped in the region, with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin packing Salem's football stadium and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden drawing a crowd in Martinsville.

In 2004, by contrast, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, visited Virginia five times in an unsuccessful attempt to turn the state in his favor. President Bush was so confident in his chances in Virginia that he made only a single campaign visit.

Republicans Look To Future

Tuesday's election "really poses a challenge for the Republican Party to find a way they can regain their competitiveness in Northern Virginia," Holsworth said.

With a gubernatorial election on the horizon a year from now, Republicans don't have much time to regroup.

"Obviously we've got to do more outreach to the new voters in Virginia, the younger voters," said Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican who will run for governor next year.

McDonnell said this was a "unique election."

"I've been in office 20 years and I've never seen an election like this one, where 80 percent of Virginians think the country is on the wrong track," he said.

But next year's governor's race was not on the minds of Virginia's exuberant Democrats Tuesday.

"I see the same electric feeling here that I saw in '89 when Doug Wilder was elected," Cranwell said. "There was a tremendous sense of pride in Virginia that we stepped beyond the past and embraced the future. Tonight we stepped beyond the past and embraced the future as a nation. We'll be better for it."

Warner Wins By Landslide

Warner compiled an impressive statewide majority and won all 11 of the state's congressional districts, capitalizing on the broad-based support he cultivated during his term as governor.

His decisive victory means Democrats will occupy both of the state's Senate seats for the first time since 1970, when Harry Byrd left the party to become an independent.

"Tonight, by a record margin, Virginians said they want their next U.S. senator focused on results, not rhetoric," Warner told boisterous supporters Tuesday night.

Warner will succeed popular Republican John Warner, who is retiring after 30 years in the Senate. The two Warners are not related, but their political paths have intersected. Mark Warner made his first try for public office in 1996, losing to John Warner in a race that was closer than many expected. The former rivals became allies after Mark Warner became governor, and the Democrat often said that he would not have run for the Senate this year had John Warner decided to seek re-election.

Mark Warner saluted the retiring senator in his victory speech: "I will continue to seek his advice and counsel. He has been a great United States senator."

Warner was greeted on stage by Gov. Tim Kaine and U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, who will be the state's senior senator.

Warner's win helped Democrats expand their majority in the Senate. Though he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention and made several campaign appearances with presidential candidate Barack Obama, Warner insisted throughout the fall that he would be an independent-minded lawmaker. He said he wants to be part of a bipartisan coalition of "radical centrists" that would advance consensus solutions to major policy challenges, particularly economic issues.

"It might be time to send a few more senators up there who can read a balance sheet," Warner said.

Warner, 53, left the governor's office in 2006 with high approval ratings and spent several months exploring a run for president before deciding against a national campaign.

Business and labor groups endorsed Warner's candidacy, as did the two Republicans who led the General Assembly's budget committees during his term as governor and backed a 2004 tax increase that marked a turning point in Warner's administration.

Gilmore, 59, struggled to raise money and never gained traction in public opinion polls conducted during the campaign.

He was elected governor in 1997 on a promise to eliminate the personal property tax on vehicles, but sparred with lawmakers in his own party when an economic downturn made his signature initiative more difficult to sustain.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Abingdon), who ran unopposed this year, was re-elected to another term in the U.S. House of Representatives.