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The Electoral Map Keeps A Changin’ … But Not That Much

I wasn’t surprised when I read almost 10 days ago that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign would begin running television ads in Virginia. Kerry’s strategists had telegraphed that move a few days earlier.

[IMGCAP(1)]But I was more than a little taken aback when Kerry campaign manger Mary Beth Cahill was quoted in The Washington Post as saying “Virginia is prime territory for John Kerry.”

Prime territory? Virginia is long-shot territory, but that may well be reason enough for the Democrat’s campaign to decide to begin advertising and to have Kerry make a foray into the state.

Presidential campaigns, of course, are always looking for new opportunities. Florida morphed from reliably Republican to a toss-up in 2000, and Al Gore’s strategists eyeballed a number of other states they hoped to compete in before deciding to concede them to George W. Bush. So nobody should be surprised that operatives working for Kerry and President Bush are looking for states that offer new opportunities.

Kerry strategists keep talking about putting more states into play, but there is little evidence that the electoral map has changed that much in four years. Yes, new residents continue to flood into Clark County, Nev., and into parts of Florida, and partisanship has been evolving in some states over the past decade or two. New Jersey and Illinois appear more Democratic than they once did, just as Tennessee and Kentucky have been becoming more Republican.

But often talk about realignment is overdone, or at least premature. I started hearing talk 20 years ago that North Carolina was being overrun with highly educated, high-tech Northerners who would change the state’s voting patterns, moving the state toward the Democratic column. Well, the state’s voters have changed, but the Tar Heel State continues to look Republican in its presidential politics.

So let’s be clear about Kerry’s prospects in the Old Dominion. If Virginia goes for the Senator this year, the Massachusetts Democrat won’t need it to win the presidency. He will have already won a number of states that Gore lost in 2000.

Bush won 11 states by a narrower margin than he did Virginia: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia. Does anyone really believe that Kerry will lose Ohio or Florida or even Missouri yet win Virginia?

State polling seems to confirm that normally reliable Republican states remain loyal to the president, just as most traditionally Democratic states prefer Kerry. But the exceptions are hard to ignore.

Michigan and Pennsylvania may or may not be “in play” in the fall, but they appear to be competitive now. That ought to worry the Kerry campaign, because if Kerry loses Michigan, he certainly isn’t going to carry Virginia.

But let’s assume that Kerry is serious about contesting Virginia. What might he do?

Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders of Rural Renaissance Consultants argues that Kerry would need to over-perform (for a Democrat) in the state’s three western Congressional districts, the 5th, 6th and 9th.

The 5th (Rep. Virgil Goode) and the 6th (Rep. Bob Goodlatte) are currently represented by Republicans (Goode switched parties after being elected initially as a Democrat), while the 9th district has been represented for years by Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher.

All three districts are culturally conservative, and all went solidly (each by at least a dozen points) for Bush four years ago.

Saunders, who helped guide Democratic Gov. Mark Warner’s victory in Virginia’s 2001 gubernatorial race, insists that Warner won because “he got through the culture.”

“John Kerry needs to do the same thing,” says Saunders, adding that Warner, who carried both the 5th and 9th districts in his race for governor, originally came from Connecticut, and, like Kerry, “is a Yankee.”

“Kerry is a hunter. He’s been doing it for years. They need to work that,” he adds.

Count me as skeptical.

Warner spent a long time working to take cultural issues off the table in his statewide race, while Kerry is so inextricably connected to blue-blood Boston that it would be impossible for him to connect with culturally conservative voters, no matter how many times he goes hunting in rural Virginia.

Indeed, any efforts by Kerry, in the middle of a campaign for president, to woo culturally conservative voters would only make him look like a phony politician willing to morph himself for voters. And that reputation wasn’t exactly an asset for Gore.

We will see if Kerry is really interested in competing in the Old Dominion, or whether his strategists are simply testing the waters in running a biographical ad in a number of Virginia media markets. In this case, I agree completely with Saunders.

“I’m delighted Kerry is laying the groundwork” for an effort in Virginia, says the man known to many simply as Mudcat. “But politics is all about addition and offense. You got to start with a feel-good [ad], but what’s Kerry gonna do next?”

Not much, I’d bet.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report .

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