Voters in Prince William County face two major decisions in the November election. Besides the presidential choice,a tight Senate race between former governors Tim Kaine and George Allen looms on the county’s political horizon.
The second largest county in the state,Prince William is a complex political battleground. An influx of immigrants in the past 10 years has created a diverse community and introduced a broader set of political beliefs.
This led to a win for President Barack Obama in 2008 in a county and state that previously had a 10-election winning streak for Republican presidential candidates.
Obama and his wife,Michelle,have made 15 appearances across the state so far this year,while likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney has made six appearances,with a stop in Richmond scheduled later this month.
This diverse new environment has altered the state and county’s traditional Republican identity and given candidates more reason to target population centers like Prince William.
“Virginia elections tend to be won and lost in suburban counties,” Stephen Farnsworth,political science professor at University of Mary Washington,said. These suburban counties are “the most hard-fought aspects of the election in the state,” he said.
As part of the Washington metro area,the county found itself largely protected from the recession that hit the rest of the country in 2008 because of a large federal presence and its strong job market.
While many Prince William residents avoided the brunt of the recession,their eyes haven’t been averted from the country’s economic problems.
“The nation’s inability to get its fiscal act in order will matter a lot more in Prince William County,” Farnsworth said.
A military presence,largely based at Quantico,one of the world’s largest U.S. Marine Corps bases,places more focus on the impending threat of cuts to defense spending. The cuts would come as part of sequestration,or across-the-board spending cuts. Sequestration is the process Congress set up when it could not agree on a budget. If there is no budget,huge spending cuts take place Jan. 1.
According to a study by Stephen Fuller,director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University,sequestration could result in the loss of up to 207,571 jobs in the state,136,191 of which are related to the Defense Department.
“If the economy improves as we get closer to the election,Obama’s chances of winning re-election will improve,” Geoff Skelley,media coordinator for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia,said. “But if the economy remains static or gets worse,Romney will have a good shot at winning.”
Outside of economic issues,the county has found itself involved in the national immigration discussion.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Arizona immigration law hit home in Prince William,where a similar law was enacted in 2007 by a Republican-majority county board. County Democrats are using the ruling to show the minority population,“who has their best interests in mind,” Jane Touchet,co-chair of the Prince William County Democratic Committee’s outreach committee,said.
At the same time,Republicans have heard support from those in the county who thought all of the provisions in the Arizona law should have been upheld,Robert Patten,vice chair of the Prince William County Republican Committee,said.
With a plethora of issues driving Prince William voters,the county’s Democratic and Republican committees are working to ensure that their supporters show up to vote Nov. 6.
Senate race draws on political ties
While the presidential campaigns operate at full force in the state,so are the campaigns for the state’s open Senate seat. In a year with a presidential election,the two races operate on similar levels. This can be seen through the coordinated campaign offices scattered across the state,including the two headquarters in Woodbridge.
Political ties have a sizable role in this election because both Senate candidates have formidable resumes in state and national politics.
“The political history of individual candidates matters a bit less in Virginia because there are so many people moving into the state,” Farnsworth said. “Well-known candidates can basically reintroduce themselves every time they run for something.”
Despite the candidates’ successful political pasts,both of their campaigns have emphasized parts of the other’s past they hope voters will find most alienating.
Kaine’s campaign has created ads that focus on Allen’s time as a senator,emphasizing Allen’s votes that lead to a higher national deficit.
All politics are local
When mapping out scenarios for national election results,Skelley said it’s difficult to see how Obama or Romney can win nationally without winning Virginia’s 13 electoral votes. This could make Virginia the most crucial state in this election,he said.
Both parties’ efforts can be seen in the number of campaign offices across the state; 75 Obama for America offices,some of which house Kaine campaign staff,and 28 Virginia Victory offices,all combined Romney and Allen campaigns.
The county’s Democratic and Republican committee headquarters in Woodbridge have stark differences in appearance,which speak to the styles of the two campaigns.
In Suite 6 of theoffice is barely visible from the street.
Just inside – through a door adorned with a committee business card,an invitation to “make a difference” and a coordinated campaign bumper sticker – signs for Democratic candidates fill the walls. The lack of yard signs and campaign posters outside speaks to the committee’s more modest educational approach.
From the passage of the Affordable Care Act,to the president’s public support of same-sex couples and the DREAM Act,members of the committee believe that there is a strong case to be made for Obama’s re-election. Party subcommittees are trying to educate voters on these issues.
“When it comes to politics,people understand talking points that they got from MSNBC,CNN or Fox,but they don’t truly understand the underlying meaning and how this affects their family,” Michael Feetrel,chairman of the Young Democrats Committee,said. “We’re naturally inclined to only see what’s inside of our box. What you have to be able to do is change the conversation so that it relates to people.”
Feetrel,30,a pharmaceutical representative,drew on his previous profession as a teacher when he and his fellow co-chair decided the best use of his committee’s time would be to educate people on important issues. He’s confident that,once people have the information,they will make an informed decision,which he believes will take the form of a Democratic vote.
This isn’t the case for all who identify as Democrats,though. Patrick Thomas,48,senior pastor of the Dale City Christian Church and a Woodbridge resident,identifies himself as an Obama supporter. The president’s stance on social issues has Thomas debating who he should vote for.
“Somebody who understands the times is important to me as a Prince William voter. I am a supporter of our president,but then I have different views on both sides,” Thomas said. “The thing I like about my president is I think he’s setting a tolerance level for all Americans. And then there are things that I disagree with him on. One is same-sex marriage,and that’s a tough one for me.”
A 10-minute drive from the Democratic headquarters,the Republican committee headquarters is impossible to miss. Yard signs fill the lawn of the small white house at 4431 Prince William Parkway. For Republicans,dislike for Obama and his policies is a sizeable part of their campaign.
The latest Quinnipiac swing state poll found that 22 percent of Romney supporters in Virginia are voting mainly against Obama,compared to 7 percent of Obama supporters who are voting mainly against Romney.
“Anyone would be better than Obama,” said Stephanie Souders,32,an English as a second language teacher in Dale City and volunteer at the Woodbridge Victory Office.
Campaigns against an incumbent president usually involve such sentiment,Farnsworth said,referring to campaigns against President George W. Bush in 2004 and President Bill Clinton in 1996.
The lawn full of campaign signs shows that anti-Obama sentiment is thriving in Woodbridge. The problem for Republicans is that,in 2012,Romney may not be the inspirational figure for Republicans that Obama was in 2008 for Democrats,Skelley said.
“He’s not necessarily the change Republicans are looking for – conservatives are suspicious of Romney’s true political values and are afraid he’s too moderate. But they’ll show up and vote for him because they intensely dislike Obama,” Skelley said.
Disapproval of the president has translated into increased foot traffic in the office – people eager to help the Republican cause,Bill Card,chairman of the Republican committee,said.
“We’re seeing a lot of first-timers,” Card said. “People are terrified. There are a lot of people who feel that their country is going down the drain … and the electoral process is the only way to solve that problem.”
Both offices have taken to traditional methods of campaigning to spread their parties’ messages and foster support for their candidates. Phone-banking and door-knocking are top priorities for both committees,which are using lists of targeted voters. These lists,provided by the parties’ state offices,are based on registration data and past voting patterns. The Democratic committee and its 3,000 volunteers have a goal of reaching each targeted voter with three phone contacts and six home visits by Nov. 6.
In each of the county’s seven magisterial districts,the Democratic committee has a goal of making 3,500 calls per week,which the committee intends to increase to 10,500 per week after Labor Day.
Republicans declined to release their canvassing goals.
In the end,the party that can get the most voters to the polls will be the victorious one,Farnsworth said.
“In these really partisan times a lot of people have made up their minds on who they’ll vote for before the campaigns really start,” Farnsworth said. “In this election it’s much more about mobilizing loyalists than persuading with attack ads.”
Click on the links to read the other stories.
Emily Siner writes about the county’s hopeful but changing economic climate.
Maddie Meyer writes about recent immigration laws and the Latino vote.
Siner and Meyer profile four voters.
Reach Matt Wettengel at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.