- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2011

For some Democrats in Virginia, it’s starting to feel a little like 2009.

With a sputtering national economy looming over the state and an increasingly unpopular president, some campaigns in Northern Virginia are turning away from fiscal issues and toward social issues, such as abortion and gun rights, ahead of the Nov. 8 statewide elections.

For example, in recent weeks, the campaign of Arlington County board member Barbara Favola, a Democrat, has hammered opponent Caren Merrick, a Republican, for supporting newly passed abortion clinic regulations that critics argue are the most stringent in the nation.

The campaign has also publicized Ms. Merrick’s A- rating from the National Rifle Association.

“There’s exhibit A, right there, man,” counters Republican strategist Chris LaCivita, who is consulting for the Merrick campaign. “Guns and abortion, that’s all she has.”

Mr. LaCivita described the strategy as “the same line” used by state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds in his failed 2009 gubernatorial bid. During that campaign, the Bath Democrat repeatedly hammered then-state Attorney General Bob McDonnell over a 1989 master’s thesis Mr. McDonnell wrote, which said that working women and abortion were detrimental to American families.

The strategy, for the most part, was unsuccessful. Mr. McDonnell won the governor’s race, and fellow Republicans Bill Bolling and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II were elected lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively.

And while Mr. Cuccinelli has been criticized for tackling politically sensitive topics such as health care and climate change, Mr. McDonnell has largely steered clear of introducing a legislative agenda based on social issues and scored healthy approval ratings statewide.

Adam Scott, Ms. Favola’s campaign manager, was unapologetic about the campaign’s highlighting abortion, saying the candidate’s economic record speaks for itself.

“Voters have a right to know about that,” he said. “Barbara’s going to stand up for and be a champion for women’s health in the state Senate.”

Brian Coy, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said issues in races were different on a case-by-case basis. He pointed out that the party has also criticized Republicans on economic issues.

He pointed to Mr. Bolling, the state’s chief jobs-creation officer, who told the Lynchburg Chamber of Commerce that “government doesn’t create jobs” but should foster a friendly environment for businesses to create them. Republicans on Tuesday seized on the line of attack to tie Democrats to President Obama’s stimulus plan.

But Mr. Coy has also stressed that the GOP is fielding candidates “who would do some radical things” if Republicans next month net the two additional seats they need to effectively control Virginia’s Senate, along with the House of Delegates and the governor’s mansion.

The state Democratic Party in another Northern Virginia state Senate race created a website highlighting what it describes as the “extreme” views on abortion and gun rights held by the Republican candidate, former Delegate Dick Black.

The campaign of his Democratic opponent, Shawn Mitchell, has also been pushing Mr. Black to release his answers to a Virginia Citizens’ Defense League survey. The gun-rights advocacy group, which Mr. Mitchell’s campaign claims is “far to the right of the National Rifle Association,” endorsed Mr. Black earlier this year.

“I think this is an important issue to voters in the district, and voters deserve to know where he stands on it,” said Dominic Gabello, Mr. Mitchell’s campaign manager.

Mr. Gabello added that in traveling the district, Mr. Mitchell has found that voters do care about bread-and-butter issues, such as the economy, jobs, transportation and schools - but that pointing out where Mr. Black stands on social issues is important as well.

Republicans say the move smacks of desperation.

“It’s not surprising that Democrats are trying to change the subject to social issues,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia. “Voters have made it clear they don’t want any more job-killing tax increases. That leaves the Democrats without a record they can run on. Their only choice is try to scare people about these ‘extreme’ Republicans.”

Democratic strategist Paul Goldman said that with an embarrassingly low turnout expected, parties and campaigns are trying to come up with anything they think will help drive voters to the polls.

“Talking about social issues generates energy, because they have a constituency of people who respond to those issues,” he said.