Paul Ryan speaks at Universal Fibers — which government didn’t build.
BRISTOL, Va. — Less than 5 miles from where Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney spoke Oct. 5, running mate Paul Ryan greeted a crowd in a second Washington County, Va., campaign stop Thursday.
Speaking outside Universal Fibers at the Bristol-Washington County Industrial Park, he brought a pro-business message.
“We want to release American businesses to compete,” Ryan told a crowd outside the manufacturing facility, which sells its products globally. “If we can get ourselves on a level playing field, no one can hold a candle to us.”
This county of just under 55,000 people is in Southwest Virginia, a sparsely populated region of this swing state that’s received a lot of attention in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential races.
In 2008, the largely conservative region went heavily Republican, but Democratic turnout was strong after three Obama-Biden campaign stops in three different Southwest Virginia towns. The state as a whole went Democratic for the first time in more than 40 years.
As Ryan spoke Thursday about the need for more business-friendly leadership in Washington, local Republican leaders said this year’s election in Virginia — and the nation — could hinge on the turnout in this region.
“I think turnout in the 9th [Congressional] District is key. I think it’s crucial,” said Bob Gibson, a local elected official and Republican chairman in Russell County, one of Virginia’s seven coal-producing counties. “I think it’s a unique opportunity for Southwest Virginia to not only decide Virginia; we could decide the whole national election.”
In Southwest Virginia, where voters often support Democratic candidates in local races and Republicans in larger elections, Republican turnout was low in 2008, Gibson said. But he said there’s good reason to believe it will be higher this year: “The war on coal.”
Many in Southwest Virginia blame federal regulation under the Obama administration for the recent slowdown in coal production and jobs. Even the United Mine Workers of America, traditionally a potential political force for Democrats, has chosen to remain silent on endorsements this year, though the union endorsed Obama in 2008.
Oris Christian, treasurer of the Russell County Republican Party, said a lot of union members — and other coal country Democrats — are planning to vote for Romney and Ryan.
“They’ve laid off, in Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia, nearly 2,000 coal miners, just in the last two months,” Gibson said. “I think Romney will overwhelmingly carry Southwest Virginia… I just hope it’s enough to offset the vote in Eastern Virginia and Northern Virginia.”
When it comes to political leanings, Virginia tends to be split, with the largely rural western and southern parts of the state leaning Republican and the more urbanized northern and eastern regions leaning Democratic. This regional division is part of what makes Virginia a toss-up.
Terry Frye, a Democrat, will cast one of Obama’s electoral votes if the president wins the state. Frye said Obama won Virginia in 2008 primarily because of the votes he received in Northern Virginia — but the southwest region was also important.
“Population-wise we’re not huge in terms of numbers…but clearly the coal miners in this area and some of the farmers…contributed to the president’s victory in Virginia,” Frye said. “He got a much higher turnout of Democratic voters in Southwest Virginia than presidential candidates normally receive, so I think it was significant.”
Frye said Southwest Virginia voters were swayed in 2008 by Obama’s compelling message and charisma, and because he was engaging during his two campaign stops.
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