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US election swing states: Virginia is for… Democrats?

The story of how the former Confederacy capital turned blue is one of demographic shifts, a Democratic political machine and Donald Trump. 

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In October 2008, mere weeks before the presidential election, Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former senior adviser to Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign, appeared on television and said: “I certainly agree that Northern Virginia has gone more Democratic… But the rest of the state  – real Virginia if you will  –  I think will be very responsive to Senator McCain’s message.” The MSNBC host with whom she was speaking, Kevin Corke, offered, “Nancy, I’m going to give you a chance to climb back off that ledge  – did you say ‘real Virginia’?”

Pfotenhauer did not climb back off that ledge, and Corke closed the segment noting that she was speaking with him from Northern Virginia. “Nancy Pfotenhauer, senior policy adviser for the McCain campaign, joining us from Arlington, not really Virginia.”

The Republican candidate for president had won the state of Virginia every year since 1972. Between 1952 and 2008, the Democratic candidate for president won the state just once (Lyndon B Johnson in 1964). But Barack Obama won Virginia that November. He won again four years later in 2012. And Virginians weren’t only enamored with Obama; Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump for Virginia’s electoral votes in 2016.

The story of how Virginia went blue in presidential years is one of demographic shifts, a Democratic political machine and Trump. It’s the story of how a state’s voting patterns can change – and how politicians know all too well that they can change back again.

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“Virginia is a blue state”, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

Virginia’s economy is, compared to elsewhere in the country, "recession resistant. That makes it an appealing place for people to move when they're thinking about their futures,” Farnsworth explained. People move from all over the country – and indeed all over the world – to live and work in Virginia.

 

 

“The share of the electorate one would describe as ‘traditionally southern’ has been shrinking,” Farnsworth said. “This is why a generation ago governors declared Confederate history month and now governors are saying, ‘Take down confederate statues.’”

That transition is happening largely in the very real area of Northern Virginia. One can drive out of Washington, DC and take Route 66 through Fairfax County, past a sign that says “Virginia Is for Lovers” next to a crossed out “KKK”; elsewhere, the National Rifle Association’s glass building; further on, strip malls and, by the side of the road, a pupuseria selling El Salvadoran food – and then, eventually, into Loudoun County. Loudoun County went for George W Bush in 2004, but has voted for the Democratic candidate in every election since. (One could, if one were so inclined, then take the Snickersville Turnpike, passing by stately farms, from the Aldie mill to the village of Bluemont, the zip-code of which is split between Loudoun County and the still-Republican voting Clarke County, and also West Virginia.)

Loudoun County’s political transition has been informed by its demographic transformation, its board of supervisors’ chair-at-large, Phyllis Randall, told me. Randall was elected to her position in November 2015 and is the first woman of colour in the history of Virginia to be elected chair of a county board. “Loudoun did that,” she said.

Loudoun County, she explained, is extremely “tech heavy”. Loudoun Economic Development was actually advertising for a while in India, “saying we have a county that needs more tech people, please come, settle here”. As a result, Randall said, Loudoun County is “very fortunate now to have a very high South Asian population”. While the African American population in the county is holding at around 7 to 8 per cent there’s a growing Latino population, too.

The county, Randall said proudly, has a rural economy with horse stables and farms, breweries, wineries, and a tech economy. But mostly, she said, “people in Loudoun pay attention. You can't get things over on them.”

“Politics, at its core, is service. If you don't do the service, you can lose that position,” Randall said. And, at present, Loudoun County’s residents feel better served by Democrats. But the change isn’t exclusive to Northern Virginia.

 

 

“Really, what you see are significant Democratic gains in suburban areas around metropolitan areas,” Farnsworth said. That includes Northern Virginia, but it also includes the suburbs of Hampton Roads in coastal Virginia and the suburbs of Richmond, including the historically conservative Chesterfield County, which went for the Republican candidate in 2008, 2012 and 2016, but voted to elect to Congress the Democrat candidate, Abigail Spanberger, at the 2018 midterms.

"I think Chesterfield has become more diverse with more folks moving into the area from outside of central Virginia,” Leslie Haley, chair of the Chesterfield County board of supervisors, wrote in an email. “We have a mix of folks that have fled from [Northern Virginia] due to traffic, cost of living expenses and [for] our great schools. We [also have] a mix coming from the north-east – for some of the same reasons, including relocations with companies.”

The ability to work from home and travel back to headquarters has led to more people who were not born and educated in Chesterfield County – and particularly in Haley's own Midlothian district – moving in. “Most are college educated. I do think they bring a more liberal mindset from their home bases in north Virginia and/or the north-east, and that influence has changed the voter demographic in Chesterfield (but again more predominantly in Midlothian) as the county becomes more politically diverse,” she wrote.

 

 

 

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While part of Virginia’s political transition was organic, part was encouraged by the state’s Democratic Party.

“We’re a purple state,” said Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chair who was governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018, “but in a high turnout year, we’re blue.”

McAuliffe broke the trend – in part, according to Farnsworth, because Ken Cuccinelli’s anti-immigrant message didn’t resonate with Virginia voters. (It did resonate with Trump, however, who made Cuccinelli his acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.)

For the first time in 26 years, McAuliffe noted, Virginia Democrats have both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion. They even managed to keep it after a photo of the current Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, in which one person was in blackface and the other in KKK costume emerged from an old school yearbook; Northam did not resign.

Virginia has elections every year. “We work it every year. We never take a day off,” McAuliffe said. Democratic groups, including the Democratic National Committee, invested in Virginia, including, as the Nation noted last year, in voter registration in communities of colour. Their state voter file, McAuliffe said, is second to none: “That’s what it takes to take a red state and make it blue.”

Not all are in accord that the Democrats will win again come November. John March of the Republican Party of Virginia offered via email, “First of all, Virginia is not a blue state. We know that Republicans can and will win here this year because of a few reasons.”

March's reasons included Trump’s record over the past four years, including "historically low" unemployment and an economy doing "incredibly well". He also noted Virginians’ fatigue with “Democrats’ shenanigans”, their politicisation of Covid-19 and their “bailing out violent criminals like it's going out of style”. And he was dismissive of Joe Biden’s public appearances: “Virginians want someone who they know can successfully put a sentence together.”

But Grant Fox of the state’s Democratic Party disagrees. “Republicans here can't seem to grasp that running the Trump playbook doesn't work in Virginia. They have refused to learn any lessons from their historic losses these past few years,” he wrote in an email. “In the 2017 governor's race, Ed Gillespie ran on a hateful anti-immigrant platform and lost by a record margin… A lot of our gains have come from the suburbs where people have turned against Trump and the Republicans who embrace him.”

 

 

 

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Democrats are nevertheless the first to offer that whether a state is “red” or “blue” is a snapshot, not a full picture. “I think Virginia is more purple than it appears on paper," Fox wrote. "A lot of the offices that are now held by Democrats were won for the first time very recently. The challenge is now protecting those seats we've won and expanding the map to compete everywhere." Three members of Congress are Virginian Democrats who flipped House seats in 2018; Abigail Spanberger, Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton. While Wexton is now expected to win re-election, Spanberger and Luria’s races are both currently considered competitive.

“Donald Trump is the greatest thing to ever happen to the Democratic turnout machine,” McAuliffe said. “What I caution everybody is – Trump will be gone. We cannot take our foot off the gas.”

Wexton, in a statement through a spokesperson, noted that she was the only Democrat in Loudoun County's General Assembly when she was elected to the state Senate in 2014, whereas today "nearly the entire Loudoun state delegation is represented by Democrats". She stressed that she ran on, not against, expanding affordable healthcare access and preventing gun violence. "We even beat the NRA in their own backyard."

However, Aliscia Andrews, who is running against Wexton in November, lists the Second Amendment on her website as one of four main issues: "With Democrats taking control on the state legislature and the fringe radicals of the Democrat Party telling law-abiding citizens they are going to forcibly confiscate our guns, we need a strong advocate of our second amendment in office."

“I do think it's important to emphasize that there's no such thing as a permanent majority or minority in American politics,” Farnsworth said. “It’s blue at the moment [but] Republicans could be more competitive in statewide elections if they moved in a direction of where the voters are.” He points to Maryland, a neighbouring state, which has two Democratic senators yet a Republican governor, Larry Hogan, whom Farnsworth explains got re-elected by “offering a more moderate vision of Republicanism”.

It’s always possible, of course, that Republicans change course between now and election day, or that voting conditions – or voter suppression – is such that Virginia doesn’t go blue, as expected, in November. But what all polls, recent elections and political science seems to indicate is that, unless Republicans figure out how to win back the suburbs of Virginia, they will lose: as Farnsworth said, Trump’s version of Republicanism still appeals to rural voters, but there aren’t enough of them in Virginia, real or fake, to carry the state.

“It’s not clear”, Farnsworth said, that Republicans in Virginia are “heeding that message”.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor