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.
With polls this close, Frye said, a couple hundred votes could turn the election — a fact that’s proven reality before in statewide races. While he doesn’t doubt Virginia’s 9th Congressional District will see a Republican majority in 2012, he anticipates a sizeable percentage of Democratic voters also.
“I can’t single out one region,” he said. “I think it’s just the turnout in general is going to decide the election.”
The Obama-Biden ticket hasn’t yet made an appearance in far Southwest Virginia this year, though Obama visited Roanoke (site of his “you didn’t build that” remarks) and Biden made a stop in Wytheville — both areas of the 9th District that are east of the state’s coal region. Their absence from the far Southwest this year has led some to believe that they’ve written it off.
“I think they see the writing on the wall,” said Joyce Kistner, chairwoman for the Bristol, Va., Republican Committee.
Romney spokesman Sean Fitzpatrick said Romney will win Virginia for two reasons: the harm that’s been done to the state’s coal industry and defense cuts that have impacted Virginia’s military facilities.
But it was clear Thursday that neither campaign had given up the state. While Ryan spoke in Bristol and Charlottesville, Obama visited the state capital of Richmond. Romney plans another swing through the state this weekend, with Biden planning stops in Virginia Beach and Lynchburg.
The polls still call Virginia a toss-up, though this week’s Rasmussen poll gave a slight edge to Romney, with 50 percent to Obama’s 48 percent. The RealClearPolitics average of Virginia polls has Romney ahead in Virginia by 1.5 percentage points.
At Universal Fibers, Ryan spoke Thursday about the need to make things easier on job-creators and promote a future focused on economic growth. He held up Universal Fibers, a small business that grew and went global, as an example of the success that could be multiplied if regulations aren’t used in lieu of legislation, government lives within its means, and business tax rates are competitive.
“For these job creators…we’ve got to give them the ability to go and invest,” Ryan said. “We’ve got to give them the confidence that the government isn’t going to pull the rug out from under them.”
He also asked voters to keep basic American principles in sight Nov. 6.
“We are an idea, that’s what our country is,” Ryan said. “America is an idea. It’s a country founded on an idea, and Thomas Jefferson said it better than anyone else could: Our rights, they come from nature and nature’s God, not from government. We are sovereign. The government works for us, and not the other way around. That’s what this country is built on. That’s who we are. That’s the genius of America.”
“We will not kick the can down the road,” he promised. “We will not run away from our country’s problems; we’ll run at our country’s problems. We will not blame other people for the next four years; we will take responsibility and clean up this mess in Washington. And we will not try to transform this country into something that it was never intended to be.”
Universal Fibers CEO Marc Ammen had another message for Obama: People know that government didn’t build their success.
“All these years, I thought you actually built his company, and then I got this information from our president that actually Washington, D.C. built our company,” he said to the employees in the crowd, to a chorus of boos.
“I’ve got a message for Washington, D.C., and I’ve got a message for Barack Obama: You didn’t build this. You actually got in the way. I hope that, Washington, D.C., you can hear that loud and clear because if you don’t hear it now, you’re going to hear it a week from Tuesday…. This company was built by these folks right here.”