Campaign Crawlers

Battleground Virginia

Is Obama fighting for or against middle-class voters in the Old Dominion?

By 7.16.12

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Tami Hurley stood beside Union Mill Road waving a sign in the hot mid-summer sun Saturday afternoon, awaiting President Obama's arrival at Centreville High School. She was not alone. The Fairfax County businesswoman was one of more than 200 protesters who responded to the announcement of an "emergency rally" sent out by the Northern Virginia Tea Party. On her American flag T-shirt, Hurley displayed a pin that concisely summarized her situation in the Obama era: "Officially Screwed: Small Business Owner." She explained that her family runs a heating and air-conditioning business that employs 14 people, a business that the Democrat's administration seems determined to destroy.

"They're going to increase all of our prices," Hurley said, explaining that regulations enacted recently by the Environmental Protection Agency mandated a 40 percent decrease in the manufacture of R22, a refrigerant commonly used in air-conditioning systems. "Our price doubled in January, and we have to pass that along to our customers."

The EPA's mandate is part of Obama's environmental agenda, enforcing an international anti-global-warming treaty called the Montreal Protocol. Hurley sees the president pushing a different sort of "climate change," creating a climate that is hostile to free enterprise. "Obamacare is going to really hurt us, as well," Hurley said, expressing a widespread concern among small business owners that the president's health care program will impose costly mandates, decrease the quality of treatment, and require massive new taxes to fund it. Hurley pointed out that one of her young sons has epilepsy. Her son was also among the crowd of protesters who turned out Saturday in Centreville, waving a hand-lettered sign that said, "Obama = No Hope."

Hostility to small business owners is unmistakably a matter of policy for the Obama administration, and Hurley is not deceived by the president's rhetorical attempts to portray himself as a champion of the middle class. That was the central focus of Obama's message during his recent campaign swing through Virginia, as he slammed his GOP opponent Mitt Romney as a greedy capitalist concerned only with defending the privileges of the rich. Inside the gymnasium at Centreville High, the president told his supporters that Republicans have only two ideas: "If we cut taxes trillions of dollars, mostly for those at the very top ... that somehow that's going to be good for everybody. ... Their second big idea is if you eliminate regulations on oil companies or insurance companies or credit card companies or polluters, that somehow that will free up the engine of growth." Deriding this as a "trickle-down" policy, Obama told the crowd: "We don't need more top-down economics. I believe in a middle-out economics, a bottom-up economics. I believe that when hardworking Americans are doing well, everybody does well.… That's why I ran for president -- to fight on behalf of the middle class and those who are striving to get into the middle class."

This drew applause inside the high-school gym, which wasn't filled to capacity and where the audience was padded by the inclusion of some of the president's supporters from Democrat-friendly Maryland, across the nearby Potomac River. Outside the gym among the local protesters, however, Obama's "fight on behalf of the middle class" was described by Republicans as a fight against the middle class, particularly in affluent Fairfax County.

"This is Republican territory," said Tim Hugo, the GOP delegate who represents Centreville in the Virginia General Assembly. "More importantly, these are the people who will take it on the chin with Obama's tax increases. These are the job-producers, the dual-income families…. This is Ground Zero for the Obama tax increases."

Of course, as the president makes sure to remind his supporters at every stop during his re-election campaign, he hasn't raised taxes -- not yet, not during his first term. But the massive costs of implementing Obamacare will have to be paid somehow and the president's assertion that the program's multi-trillion-dollar costs can be met by hiking rates only on "the rich" isn't taken seriously by anyone capable of applying basic arithmetic to the equation. Alas, math-deficient liberals are a core constituency for the president, and even in Fairfax County, many people can't quite seem to understand why Democrats' something-for-nothing promises never work out as actual policy.

Obama carried Virginia in 2008 by a margin of six percentage points, in part because he won a surprising large share of middle-class voters who had become disillusioned with the GOP during George W. Bush's second term. In 2004, Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry by more than a quarter-million votes in Virginia, which hadn't been won by a Democrat since 1964. But in 2008, with Obama's candidacy exciting a surge of new voter registrations and Republicans demoralized by Bush-era "brand damage," John McCain lost Virginia by more than 200,000 votes. No other state saw such a dramatic shift toward the Democrats, except perhaps neighboring North Carolina. This year, however, North Carolina Democrats are in such organizational disarray -- the state party leadership has been disgraced by a particularly lurid sex scandal -- that few observers think Obama can compete in the Tar Heel State, even though the Democrats are holding their national convention in Charlotte. Thus, the president's campaign strategists have concentrated additional effort on keeping Virginia in Obama's column.

IF DEMOCRATS CAN'T DO the math necessary to understand basic economics, they are keenly aware of the political arithmetic necessary to re-elect Obama. Forcing Republicans to fight for Virginia's 13 Electoral College votes means that the Romney campaign must divert attention from perennial battleground states like Ohio and Florida. Most early polls show Obama leading in the Old Dominion -- ahead 47.5 percent to Romney's 44.5 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of Virginia polls -- and if that trend continues into the fall campaign, the GOP will face an enormous challenge in re-taking the White House. On the other hand, if Virginia's middle-class voters rally to the Romney standard over the next six to eight weeks, Obama will clearly be on the defensive as the campaign enters the home stretch. This explains why Obama showed up Saturday in Fairfax County to give a speech in which he invoked the phrase "middle-class families" on four separate occasions.

Contrary to the president's rhetoric, Republicans continue to hold their own among actual middle-class families -- that is to say, married voters with household incomes above $50,000 a year. To the extent that Democrats have recently made any substantial gains in the middle-income demographic, it is among the unmarried and the divorced. The fraying of the family examined by Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart (see David Bass's column last month) has enormous political consequences. Even in the ebb-tide year of 2008, exit polls showed John McCain getting half the over-$50,000 vote, while Obama secured his margin of victory by getting 60 percent of voters whose annual incomes were below that threshold. And whereas unmarried voters favored Obama by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, McCain won a narrow majority among married voters.

Fairfax County, a booming suburb southwest of Washington, D.C., would therefore seem to be exactly the kind of "Republican territory" that Tim Hugo described. With a median household income above $100,000, Fairfax is the third richest county in America and, with more than 1.1 million residents, is also the most populous county in Virginia. Yet the eastern side of the county, closer to D.C., has a lot of apartments, townhouses and condominiums occupied by young singles and lower-income residents, and Fairfax is also home to many immigrants -- nearly 30 percent of the county's population is foreign-born -- whose inclinations are clearly more toward the Democrats. (An undetermined percentage of those immigrants are illegal aliens or other non-citizens and thus ineligible to vote, a fact alluded to by some Tea Party protesters who noted that attendees at the Obama rally were required to show identification, while the president's administration opposes requiring ID to vote.) Overall, Democrats are a majority of voters in Fairfax County, which John Kerry won with 54 percent in 2004 without preventing Bush from claiming statewide victory. In 2008, however, Obama beat McCain by more than 100,000 votes in Fairfax (60 percent to 38 percent), a result that played a big part in tipping Virginia into the Democrat's column. The challenge for Romney's campaign in 2012 is to boost the GOP vote in western Fairfax County enough to offset Obama's strength on the east side, keeping the margin close enough in the Northern Virginia suburbs to make up the difference in the predominantly Republican rural areas of the state.

There are reasons to suspect that, despite the early poll numbers, the Old Dominion will swing toward the Republican this fall. Virginia was the scene of one of the first GOP victories that signaled an anti-Obama backlash in 2009, when Republican Bob McDonnell won the governorship with nearly 59 percent of the vote. In the 2010 mid-term election, Republican challengers in Virginia defeated three Democratic congressmen, including 14-term incumbent Rick Boucher. Boucher made the career-ending mistake of supporting the president's energy policy, which threatens to eliminate thousands of coal-mining jobs in the southwest Virginia district now represented by Republican Morgan Griffith. Obama's tax-the-rich proposals are similarly threatening to the interests of prosperous suburbanites in Northern Virginia, especially small business owners like Tami Hurley.

THE LARGE CROWD of protesters at Saturday's event impressed Republican officials. "It's amazing how many people are out here," said Hugo, the local delegate. Fairfax County supervisor Pat Herrity interpreted the strong turnout as a promising omen for November. "Our people are energized," he said. "People around here are angry."

Ron Wilcox seemed more amused than angry. A leader of the Northern Virginia Tea Party, Wilcox smiled when asked how things were going for the grassroots movement. "Dead as a doornail, can't you see?" he joked, as scores of protesters nearby chanted anti-Obama slogans and waved their yellow "don't-tread-on-me" Gadsden Flags. Grassroots activism got an accidental boost last month when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the president's health-care legislation, ruling that the mandated coverage portion of the measure is a tax. Attendance at Tea Party events has doubled since the June decision, said Wilcox, who advocates the repeal of Obamacare no matter what the Supreme Court says.

What does this mean for Obama's fate in Virginia? The fundamental question is whether the election is a referendum or a choice. If Virginians see themselves casting an up-or-down vote on Obama's first term, there is good reason to believe most will vote thumbs down. The president's re-election campaign strategy, however, is to make the election a choice between the incumbent and his GOP challenger, whom Democrats are endeavoring to demonize with attack ads portraying Romney as a selfish rich guy out of touch with middle-class concerns. But voters don't have to love Romney in order to oppose Obama, and the president's campaign attacks on Romney's career at the Bain Capital investment firm have so far done little to distract middle-class voters from Obama's failed economic policies. A hint of what to expect in November was Wilcox's reaction when it was pointed out that most conservatives in the GOP primaries didn't support Romney. The Tea Party leader laughed as he shouted, "We do now!"

Virginia's governor is similarly confident. "Mitt Romney is going to win Virginia because the independent voters don't care about tax returns and Bain Capital," McDonnell told CNN's Candy Crowley in a Sunday interview, referring to the latest attacks from the Obama campaign. "They care about getting the greatest country on earth out of debt."

The fate of the greatest country on earth has been decided in Virginia before. It was Washington's victory at Yorktown that secured America's independence, and many of the key battles of the Civil War were fought within a few miles of Centreville. No state is more proud of its military traditions, and among the protesters who lined Union Mill Road on Saturday afternoon was a 54-year-old veteran of the Marine Corps, Frederick Peterson III, who explained that he is not officially a member of the Tea Party. "I don't actually belong to anything," Peterson said. "I'm not a big joiner." His son is now a Marine who just returned from Iraq, while Peterson's son-in-law is deployed to Afghanistan, and his daughter recently graduated from Naval Academy in Annapolis. Peterson expressed his philosophy as a commitment to "foundational liberty and constitutional order." No one can doubt his willingness to fight for those principles, and nowhere will the fight this fall be more crucial than in the battleground state of Virginia.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.