WASHINGTON -- Virginia appears set to send a Republican governor to Richmond for the first time in 12 years in a stunning turn of events that reflect widespread disgruntlement with the old-guard Democratic leadership.
It is also a story of a badly managed campaign by Democrat Mary Sue Terry, the state's two-term attorney general, and a flat economy where President Clinton's military cutbacks have hurt.
To the surprise of experienced political observers, upstart GOP candidate George Allen, the son of the late Washington Redskins coach, has proved an able campaigner who has managed to cast himself as a populist agent of change. By contrast, Terry's arguments that she represents experience are scattering like appleseeds across a dry Shenandoah creek bed.
"George Allen is campaigning on Bill Clinton's themes, and Mary Sue Terry is campaigning on George Bush's themes. It's really strange," says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg.
Terry, says one political observer in Richmond who did not wish to be named, "is the George Herbert Walker Bush of 1993 Virginia politics."
Only a few months ago, Terry had a wide lead in public opinion polls. Independent observers viewed her as a virtual lock for governor, and they gave her high marks for intellect and drive in handling the job of attorney general. By contrast, Allen was viewed as a lightweight headed for a fall.
But Terry has had to fend off public disappointment with Clinton and disgust with Governor Douglas Wilder, who tested the patience of many with his ill-fated run for the presidency and who has never healed his wiretapping feud with Sen. Chuck Robb.
The race for lieutentant governor is adding to the prickly nature of the campaign. In a bizarre twist, Democrats are picking up support from a Republican splinter group for their candidate, Don Beyer, running against Michael Farris, the GOP candidate.
Opponents of Farris charge that as a fundamentalist Christian, a friend of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, he is bent on destroying public schools in a right-wing frenzy of ideological zeal. Farris, a lawyer and Baptist minister, is a strong advocate of home schooling and once served as executive director of the Moral Majority in Washington state.
Terry has assailed both Allen and Farris as tools of the Christian right and argued that they are too extreme for Virginians. In urban areas, she has also emphasized her pro-choice stance and her support for a five-day waiting period to purchase guns.
It is a questionably liberal agenda in a state culture that still respects the traditional values of the small rural churches that dot the rolling hills of Virginia. It is also a campaign laced with harsh rhetoric and negative television ads that have alienated voters.
Polls now show people splitting their tickets, giving the governorship to Allen and the job of lieutenant governor to Beyer. "The voters will have it both ways," says Rozell. "They will vote for change by electing George Allen, and they will reject the radical right by defeating Mike Farris. The Democrats, by focusing on Michael Farris and the Christian right, have made it easier for voters to split their tickets and to vote for George Allen."
In seeking to stigmatize her opponent, Terry has neglected to present voters with her own qualities and abilities. In fact, she has a remarkable story to tell of a rise to power from modest beginnings in the farm country of Southwest Virginia. She worked her way through school, and ended up earning a law degree from the University of Virginia.
"I think the one thing that's lacking more than anything else in Mary Sue Terry's campaign is a positive message of who she is, what she stands for, what she has accomplished, and what she will do if elected," says Rozelle. "None of that is coming across."
Mary Sue, we hardly knew you.