- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell, a former Army officer who as Virginia’s attorney general helped ensure overseas military members’ votes counted in the last election, is hoping to reap the rewards of his effort when service members vote again in November.

With 814,000 veterans and 203,508 Department of Defense employees — a total that includes active-duty, reserve and civilian personnel — Virginia’s military community is expected to have a large say in a state that Gov. Tim Kaine won in 2005 with just over 1 million votes.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Mr. McDonnell has many attributes that will appeal to the military voter.

“It is a vote that usually leans Republican by various margins, and, of course, McDonnell having been a veteran himself, and having a daughter fight in Iraq, and being from Virginia Beach, [he] has some good arguments to use in courting them,” he said. “It always depends on their turnout and how close the race is. It is certainly looking to be a much more competitive race than the McDonnell folks had hoped it would be, so he may need every vote.”

As of August, nearly 5 million people were registered to vote in November’s election, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections. While 75 percent of the eligible voters turned out for last year’s presidential election, fewer people generally vote for governor.

In 2005, only 45 percent of the state’s 4.5 million voters cast ballots and four years before that only 46 percent of the state’s 4.1 million registered voters turned out.

The Democratic candidate, R. Creigh Deeds, has not conceded the military vote. Mr. Deeds created a veterans group chaired by Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, who served as a combat Marine in Vietnam, to help steer policy and he’s put forward a plan to assist veterans and members of the military across the state.

Terron Sims II, a former Army captain who was co-director of the Virginia Veterans for Obama, said Mr. Deeds has a long track record of advocating for current and former military members and their families through legislation. Even though Mr. Deeds isn’t a veteran, Mr. Sims said, the military community will support him.

“People assume that all veterans support veterans. That is not actually the case. That is like saying all women support women and all black people support black people,” Mr. Sims said.

But Mr. McDonnell, who worked as a medical supply officer and retired a lieutenant colonel from the Army Reserves after a career that spanned 21 years on active duty and in the reserves, is looking for a large military turnout in the hope it will give him a boost.

As attorney general in the last election, Mr. McDonnell pressed to ensure that overseas military members voting absentee could cast their ballots. Many military voters had their votes disqualified because they had not complied with a Virginia statute requiring the printed name and address of a witness; Mr. McDonnell said that federal law pre-empted that state law and the ballots should not be rejected.

Absentee ballots accounted for about a half-million of the votes cast in last year’s presidential election and 222,059 of the votes cast in 2004. In the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial contest, 75,982 people cast absentee ballots.

For Mr. McDonnell, winning the historically Republican-friendly voting bloc isn’t enough. He needs to inspire them to turn out in large numbers - especially since he has seen his double-digit advantage slip away in most polls.

Mr. McDonnell has paid numerous visits to veterans group across the state, eating breakfasts at Veterans of Foreign Wars lodges and giving speeches at American Legion posts. He spoke to the state’s annual VFW convention in June. He and his opponent addressed the American Legion convention in July.

Mr. McDonnell’s daughter Jeanine is a former Army officer and Iraq war veteran who has been campaigning across the state for her father. Once a week, Ms. McDonnell takes part in a veterans phone bank, asking potential voters for support.

“I think there are a lot of factors in determining the outcome of the election. I think that vets and retired military are a big part,” she said Wednesday. “Since he is a veteran and is retired, he is more sensitive to their needs. It is personal thing for him. I’ll leave the policies and other things up to him to discuss.”

The campaign has sent out mailers to women and military members across the state signed by Ms. McDonnell. The campaign hosts veteran phone campaign on nights when veterans work the phone banks.

“The military vote is going to be a big factor,” she said. “Not only those who served but family members. I think it is a huge part of the vote and could possibly be a large factor in the outcome of the election.”

Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, Woodbridge Republican and a retired Army colonel, is co-chairman of the Veterans for McDonnell campaign. Mr. Lingamfelter helps coordinate voter-mobilization efforts, which he said will be huge on Election Day.

“They’re going door to door. They are integrated into the ground game,” he said. “Those veterans are going to be out there on Election Day because they know how important it is to elect a veteran for veterans.”

Both candidates have been aggressive in defining and issuing proposals on how they will assist the military community if elected.

The Republican candidate said he will create a Cabinet-level position to advise on active-duty military and dependent issues. That person will be tasked with figuring out what Virginia needs to do regarding supporting the military’s mission, assisting family members who live in the state, providing care for returning members including transitioning back to civilian life and helping them and their families to recover from combat trauma. The adviser also will consider new laws to support service members.

Among the policies aimed at assisting veterans, Mr. McDonnell has said he will create a state compact with veterans that establishes a long-term vision and commitment to their needs. Mr. McDonnell also wants to create an automated claims-processing center to make filing for claims faster. He wants to create a statewide network to help veterans find jobs, and he pledged to work to close the gap between state and federal programs to assist homeless veterans.

Mr. Deeds wants to do more to support Virginia’s Wounded Warrior program. He wants to build a support network when it comes to treatment for veterans as well as streamline the benefits claims process. Mr. Deeds also said he will help make colleges affordable for veterans, provide tax relief for disabled veterans and help them find jobs when they return from duty.

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