Talking with voters in central Virginia about the environment and the election
This is part of a series of dispatches from Melinda Henneberger, who’s talking to voters around the U.S. about their views on the environment and the election.
Stanardsville, Va. — A harvest moon is rising over the cornfields on the last night of the Greene County Fair, just hours before the carnival rides are packed up and the local politicos break down the vast GOP tent, where yard signs and balloons are being handed out, and the much smaller Democratic Party tent, where you can shake hands with the local congressional candidate.
Then again, that the Democrats even have a tent at the fair this year is a step up for them in a county that went two-to-one for George W. Bush in 2004: “This is big doin’s for the Democrats in this county,” says their competition, Republican Party Chair Gary Lowe, who wound up helping his partisan adversaries put up their tent, because they’d never done it before. “Usually, they just have a little card table stuck off somewhere.”
If you’re guessing that means this is a crowd that loves John McCain, guess again. Even Lowe, who’s flipping burgers for the South River Methodist Church tonight, assures me that’s not the case. “It’s not that people want McCain; it’s that they don’t want Obama.” Why is that? “Oh, [McCain’s] liberal positions,” Lowe says. McCain “has switched — some people would say flip-flopped — on immigration, and he’s been a little soft on the judicial” appointments, too. “But,” Lowe says, heaving a sigh, “now he’s said … he’s going to be a conservative.” Asked if he believes those campaign-trail promises, Lowe doesn’t overstate his level of confidence: “I’m going to have to believe him.”
Still, Lowe’s analysis doesn’t offer much hope for Democrats who want to turn Virginia’a 13 electoral votes blue for the first time since 1964. There is a candidate who is unifying the county’s Republicans, Lowe says, and that’s Barack Obama. “They’re afraid of him, to be honest with you. Where’d he come from?”
On the issues, Lowe sees the price of gas working to his party’s advantage, “because Republicans, of course, are, ‘Drill here, drill now, drill ANWR.'” Immigration is another major focus: “A lot of people are irritated about this immigration; my wife is from England and it took two years for her to get here legally, so it burns her up to hear about these Mexicans coming here.”
Shelly Ripa, a volunteer who’s handing out balloons in the Republican Party tent, is equally honest about her depth of feeling for the candidate she’s campaigning for: “McCain, as a Republican, we’re not too thrilled with him; he jumps the fence a little too much out of the comfort zone. You don’t want to be too nice and give conservative values away.” But, she says, “We’ll hold our nose and vote for him, because with the fight on terror, John McCain will be right there, where with Obama, who knows? People who come by here say, ‘Ah, we wish we had somebody better, but the alternative…'”
Ethyle Cole Giuseppe, who is sitting nearby listening to a bluegrass concert, says she’s not sure she’ll even vote this time, for the first time in her adult life. “McCain is over the hill,” says Giuseppe, who’ll soon be 90 herself. When I ask if she knows any Obama supporters, she mentions the Sunday school teacher at her church. “He’d vote for anyone — black, or anyone — as long as he was a Democrat.” Not that she hasn’t swung that way a time or two herself, she adds, most recently when she voted for John F. Kennedy. “My husband was Catholic,” she says, laughing.
As I wander around the fairgrounds, sidling up to folks in line for the Ferris wheel and the funnel cake stand, I never find an enthusiastic McCainiac. “I don’t like Obama; I don’t think he can take us in a better direction or keep all his promises,” says Kelly Wheeler, who’s carrying the inflatable plastic red, white, and blue guitar her daughter won — and counting the days until school starts.
Michelle Collier is wearing a “Perriello for Congress” button that was just given to her by the Democratic candidate; she says she didn’t want to hurt his feelings when he handed it to her. “I am in such a frenzy over who to vote for” for president, she says. “I don’t have a clue.” She usually votes Republican, she says, “on abortion and gay marriage and all that stuff. But I’m disappointed in McCain” over “all the mud-slinging back and forth; I’m not much on that. My husband says, ‘Michelle, it’s part of politics,’ but I don’t think it has to be.”
There are a few outspoken Democrats here at the fair, including Ada Withrow, a nurse who says she’s surprised how many of her colleagues “seem to be leaning Obama, too, on health-care issues.”
The young Democratic congressional candidate, Tom Perriello, an enviro who comes out of the nonprofit world, is shaking every hand he can, alongside his mom Linda and dad Vito, a local pediatrician. In the race for the 5th-district seat once held by Thomas Jefferson, Perriello is trailing the 12-year incumbent, Virgil Goode, a former Democrat best known nationally for his support for tobacco interests. Goode once argued that he didn’t want his elderly mom “denied the one last pleasure” of a smoke on her hospital death bed. Two years ago, Goode famously criticized Michigan Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, for using a Koran at an unofficial swearing-in ceremony, warning that “if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office.”
Perriello — a graduate of Yale Law who did service work in Liberia and Sierra Leone and worked as a national security analyst in Darfur and Afghanistan — is running hard on energy and environmental issues. He sees a lot of interest in the local-food movement from former tobacco farmers “who got the buyout and are looking for their next crop.” And interest in energy issues is big: “The main thing I say now is, ‘Do you know the No. 1 reason gas is going down is because people are driving less?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, and the thing that makes me furious is my pickup truck gets 13 miles a gallon because it’s cheaper to buy a politician than to build me a truck that’s more fuel-efficient.’ Even very Republican people nod when you say it’s the American people that are getting it done — they say, ‘I haven’t driven my truck in a week,’ so people already know it.”
Energy was the major focus of a recent Goode-Perriello debate. Says Perriello, “His answer on everything was drill in ANWR; if you asked him about the situation in Georgia, he was like, ‘We should probably drill in ANWR.'” According to the Lynchburg News & Advance, “Perriello accused Goode of voting consistently for legislation that increased the profits of oil companies, and said Goode had $200,000 of investments in energy stocks. Perriello said energy is America’s ‘No. 1 national security threat, No. 1 environmental threat, and No. 1 economic opportunity because entrepreneurs will be seeking capital for energy companies for the next 20 years.’
“Goode replied that his energy policy is ‘pro-drill, pro-conservative, and pro-alternative energy.’ Goode said he has voted for solar-energy bills, wind-energy bills, and biofuels. Boos erupted, apparently from Perriello supporters, when Goode said he favored drilling for oil in ANWR, the [Arctic] National Wildlife Refuge … Undaunted, Goode said at least three more times that he favored a pro-drill policy of searching for oil in the United States and offshore.”
If Perriello and Obama have any chance of winning in Virginia, it’ll be on the coattails of their party’s Senate candidate. Mark Warner, the former governor who came close to running for president this year, is heavily favored to win the Senate seat being vacated by Republican John Warner. Mark Warner’s recipe for winning in this conservative state? Hewing solidly to the center, avoiding the controversial social issues that have hurt Democrats throughout the South, and pushing a generally pro-business economic agenda, as reflected in Warner’s less-than-radical energy plan.
(Read Henneberger’s first post on Virginia.)