If the presidential contest in Virginia is as close as polls show, the outcome might be determined by a folksy ex-congressman with a country twang who has been a Democrat, an independent and a Republican and may now earn a new label: spoiler.
Former Virginia Representative Virgil Goode, an enduring figure in the state’s rural Southside, could become the Ralph Nader of 2012. It was Nader, as the Green Party candidate in 2000, who peeled enough votes to cost Democratic Vice President president Al Gore the key state of Florida, which tipped the presidential election to then-Texas Governor George W. Bush.
Goode, 66, is on the ballot with Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama as the Constitution Party candidate in 26 states. The former Republican lawmaker’s anti-immigration, pro- gun-rights and federal budget-cutting messages appeal to some of the same voters who might support Romney in next week’s presidential election.
Goode, who lost his bid for a seventh House term in 2008, rejects the premise that his candidacy could materially affect the outcome of the presidential election.
“That’s like saying Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election in 2000,” Goode said in an interview. “He cost it himself.”
Goode’s chances of taking votes that Romney would otherwise collect are greatest in the critical swing state of Virginia, where he represented the state’s Fifth Congressional District for 12 years and where 2 percent of voters support his bid, according to a September Washington Post poll.
Virginia, with 13 electoral votes, is one of the four or five most competitive of eight states that will determine the election less than one week away.
Goode is spending the final weeks of the campaign focusing on the Old Dominion, though he’s also spent time in Ohio, Nevada and Florida. Goode, first elected to his House seat in 1996, often won with more than 120,000 votes -- more than the 97,000 votes that Nader won in Florida.
“Clearly Republicans are concerned about this,” said Craig Brians, a political science professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Brians notes that in the past few weeks, the local Roanoke Times has printed several letters to the editor from nervous Republicans imploring party members to “hold your nose and vote for Romney or Obama wins.”
“It certainly could affect the election” in a close race, said Charles Poindexter, a Republican state House delegate from Goode’s home turf of Franklin County. “The question I get is, ‘Why is Virgil doing this?’ I think most people understand he can’t win.”
His impact will depend on the closeness of the contest in a state that Democrats hadn’t won since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 until Obama carried it in 2008.
The state’s electorate is now evenly divided, according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics from Oct. 22-26 showing Obama and Romney tied at 47.8 percent.
Since 2008, Virginia has seen a 3 percentage-point decline in white working-class, non-college-educated voters who would tend to favor Romney, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Minority voters also have gained 1 percentage-point in numbers, as have white college- educated voters -- two groups favoring Democrats.
Still, those advantages for Obama may be offset by greater turnout among white voters frustrated by a sluggish, though recovering, economy who may favor Romney.
“There’s probably going to be bigger turnout among whites in Virginia than there was in 2008,” Frey said. “That makes it more even.”
While the dominant campaign issue, the economy isn’t as beneficial for Romney as it is in other states. Virginia’s unemployment rate last month was 5.9 percent, compared with 7.8 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Democrats say they’re confident that any votes won by Goode, who advocates limiting legal immigration and deep cuts to federal spending, would hurt Romney, not Obama.
“If he takes votes away at all, it would be from the Republican ticket,” said Brian Moran, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party.
Mark Rozell, a political analyst at George Mason University in Fairfax County, said polling estimates of Goode earning 1 or 2 percent of the vote may be overstated.
“I’m a skeptic,” Rozell said. While voters may express support for a third-party candidate like Goode in polls, he said, “The tendency of voters is to change their mind by Election Day rather than throw their vote away.”
Goode (rhymes with “food”) has long been a colorful, if volatile, figure in Virginia politics. Wiry, with an angular face and pronounced Virginia twang, Goode made a habit of passing out pencils while campaigning, once explaining that voters found them more useful than bumper stickers or literature. His office for years featured a chair made from a tree stump.
“What you see is what you get with Virgil,” said Steven Angle, the mayor of Goode’s hometown of Rocky Mount who attended high school with him. “Any type of function in the town or the county he attended if he could. If he couldn’t, he would send you a letter telling why he couldn’t be there.”
Elected to the state Senate as a Democrat at age 27, Goode still belonged to that party when he initially won his congressional seat in 1996. He became an independent two years later and then a Republican in 2002. He lost his seat in 2008 as Obama won Virginia by 7 percentage points.
Goode is perhaps best known nationally for his anti- immigration stance, the cornerstone of his candidacy. Goode says there should be a moratorium on green card admissions until U.S. unemployment is under 5 percent. “I’m the only one advocating that,” he said in the interview.
His Constitution Party platform also calls for ending automatic birthright citizenship and balancing the budget by eliminating the departments of energy, education and commerce.
Goode has received an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest gun lobby, and opposes a ban on assault weapons like those used in the recent massacre in a Colorado movie theater. In contrast, Romney signed the nation’s first assault weapons ban in Massachusetts and previously said he would support a federal version. In 1994, Romney also backed a five-day waiting period for gun sales. In his presidential campaign, he’s said there’s no need for new gun laws.
Goode says his values align more closely with voters in the Old Confederacy, with a pro-gun, anti-federal-spending culture. Many of these former Democrats-turned-Republicans like Goode have in recent decades shunned the Democratic Party over social issues even as they are dissatisfied with the Republican Party’s prescriptions for the economy and creating jobs.
“The problem with America is people aren’t voting their beliefs,” Goode said. “They’re always asking you to hold your nose and vote against what you believe in.”
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