GovernorTim Kaine (D)
SenatorsJim Webb (D)
Mark Warner (D)
- 6 D, 5 R
- 1 through 11
In Virginia, with a bustling economy and sometimes painful growth, traditions endure. Through 400 years of history, Virginians have honored, and sometimes have been transfixed by traditions going back to the American Revolution and earlier. For the last half-century, Virginia has been growing lustily. After World War II, its growth was mainly sparked by expanding employment in the federal government; in more recent years, the state has developed a vibrant private sector as well. But the first state in the nation to elect an African-American governor in some ways has still hewn to a course close to its roots. The first Virginia was a commonwealth ruled by a landed gentry that, in the words of historian David Hackett Fischer, was “elitist and libertarian.” From the tobacco-growing counties then emerged in the 1770s a group of leaders—George Washington, George Mason, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and James Madison—that in learning, wisdom and strength of character, equaled any such group from any similarly sized polity since Periclean Athens or republican Rome. They were slaveholders who insisted on liberty, armed men who insisted on the rule of law, and believers in racial inequality who set forth principles of equality that would in time form the basis of a non-racist society. The Virginia they led into the American Revolution was not only the most populous and the richest of the 13 colonies, but it also was the indispensable creator of the republic and the Constitution that has held together the world’s greatest democracy.
After the Revolutionary War, control by the gentry continued even as Virginia was eclipsed in population and wealth by Pennsylvania and New York and, its tobacco fields all but exhausted, became a breeding ground for slaves. But Virginia had two more great heroes, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, both of whom reluctantly and brilliantly fought for their state rather than the larger nation. Virginia’s leadership class was impoverished and embittered by the Civil War, so much of which was fought on Virginia soil. Industrialization was haphazard. Railroads were constructed to ship cotton up from the South and coal east to the seaports. Textile mills were built in Southside towns and tobacco factories in Richmond. The giant Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company was built by railroad magnate Collis Huntington. Politically, Virginia was ruled by local gentry who worshipped their revolutionary past and mourned their “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. They were pessimists, looking not for economic growth but for stability, bent on maintaining Virginia’s segregation and content with its second-class economy. County courthouse organizations became the political machine of Harry Byrd, who ran Virginia politics from 1925, when he was elected governor, until 1965, when he retired from the U.S. Senate. In national politics, this machine lost battles more often than Lee lost on the battlefield, and less gallantly. For years, the machine succeeded in keeping most vestiges of racial equality out of Virginia, to the point of closing public schools in the 1950s rather than obeying federal court desegregation orders.
This “massive resistance” collapsed in the late 1950s. Virginia’s demographics were changing and its politics went through a quarter-century of flux. The government-employee-filled Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. and the industrial Tidewater region around Norfolk and Newport News, plus the enfranchisement of blacks, provided a political base for liberal Democrats. In the years since, Virginia has undergone a demographic revolution. In 1970, its major metropolitan areas, as then defined, included only a minority of the state’s residents: Northern Virginia had just 12%, Tidewater 17%, and metro Richmond 10%. The rest of Virginia—rural, small town, small industrial and textile mill cities—had 61% of the state’s population, and was solidly conservative. Most African-Americans didn’t vote and the poll tax held down voting among whites. With less than half Virginia’s population, West Virginia cast more votes in 1960. Nearly forty years later, in 2008, Virginia’s population was 67% larger. Northern Virginia had spread out into once rural counties, some of which were the nation’s fastest growing exurbs in the 1990s and early 2000s, and accounted for 32% of the state’s population. Tidewater, spreading out into swampy lands on either side of the James River, accounted for another 21%. Metropolitan Richmond expanded outward in every direction and accounted for 16% of the state’s population. The traditional Virginia had shrunk, geographically and demographically. Left with the Northern Neck and the two Eastern Shore counties in the east and Southside Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains of southwest Virginia, it accounted for only 31% of the state’s population.
Growth and change produced unstable politics. In the 1970s, conservatives who left the Democratic Party and ran as independents or Republicans held Democrats at bay. In the 1980s, three moderate Democrats were elected governor—Charles Robb in 1981, Gerald Baliles in 1985, and Douglas Wilder in 1989—because they did not represent an attempt to impose a liberal agenda on an unwilling Virginia, and because they argued they could use government effectively to improve education and build the state’s economy. Wilder’s election was a national breakthrough, a successful attempt by an African-American politician to campaign and to govern on equal terms. His fiscal conservatism, which resulted in sharp spending cuts in the early 1990s, like his elegant manners and thick Richmond accent, echoed Virginia’s elitist and libertarian tradition; his insistence on the rule of law helped him win election as Richmond’s mayor in 2004.
In the 1990s, Virginia developed ideological politics along party lines, and Republicans made historic strides by winning majorities with traditional party platforms. George Allen was elected governor by a wide margin in 1993 as a Republican who believed in lower taxes, traditional cultural values, longer prison terms, and teaching basic skills—he combined confrontational issue positions with a sunny temperament. In the 1997 contest for governor (Virginia is the last state which bars its governors from running for re-election, another tradition that endures), Republican James Gilmore made his centerpiece issue the phasing out of the property tax on automobiles, and won a 56%-43% victory over Democrat Don Beyer. Republicans for the first time swept the top three statewide offices. In 1999, Gilmore led Republicans to legislative majorities in both chambers for the first time ever.
But the first decade of the 2000s belonged to the Democrats. Republicans haven’t won a contested race for senator or governor since 2000. The first Democratic winner was cell phone millionaire Mark Warner, who won the governorship in 2001 primarily due to an intensive 18-month campaign in rural Virginia, where he paid attention to the parts of the state not blessed by 1990s growth. Warner carried Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area only narrowly. But he also carried non-urban Virginia, which Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush had won 56%-41% the year before. Warner’s big success was persuading the Legislature to raise taxes by a record amount in 2004. The Republican state Senate wanted to raise them even more, but a lot of arms had to be twisted to get the needed votes in the Republican House of Delegates. The key impetus for raising taxes was the demand for more roads and mass transit in Northern Virginia and Tidewater. As it turned out, revenues poured in and produced a big surplus. Warner left office with high ratings and, after considering a run for president in 2008, instead ran for Republican Sen. John Warner’s open Senate seat and won in a landslide.
Warner’s victory was the first of several Democratic breakthroughs, fueled in large part by changes in the Northern Virginia electorate. Great surges of Hispanic and Asian immigrants filled downscale neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway, and singles apartment buildings went up in Arlington and Alexandria. Meanwhile, more conservative whites moved out to the exurbs. Young professionals moving into the suburbs, originally averse to higher taxes, embraced them as they languished for hours in rush hour traffic. And they were repelled by the Republicans’ embrace of conservative rural values. Bush carried Northern Virginia in 2000, and then lost it four years later, 51%-48%; it was one of the few metropolitan areas in the nation where his vote fell off in 2004. In 2008, Northern Virginia passed a milestone in its transformation by voting 49%-47% for Democrat Barack Obama for president. This trend was presaged by the election of Democrat Tim Kaine as governor in 2005, over Republican Jerry Kilgore, whose deep mountain accent and hard-line conservative stands were a hard sell in Northern Virginia. Kaine won the area 58%-40% and carried exurban Loudoun and Prince William counties as well. He won statewide 52%-46%. In 2006, Republican Allen was expected to win re-election to the Senate easily, and even contemplated a presidential campaign. But Jim Webb, a Navy secretary in the Reagan administration but now a Democrat, campaigned against the Iraq war and carried Northern Virginia 57%-42%, on his way to a 50%-49% statewide win. In 2008, Obama’s campaign did brilliant work registering African-American voters all over the state and new, young voters in Northern Virginia and in college towns. When Obama won the state in November, Kaine proclaimed, “Old Virginny is dead. We are a new and dynamic and exciting commonwealth.”
But Virginia politics may be ready for another turn. Democratic turnout was low in special elections for the Legislature and Fairfax County offices in early 2009. Democrats had a tough, three-way gubernatorial primary in June, with state Sen. Creigh Deeds finally winning the nod to face Republican Bob McDonnell, elected attorney general by just 323 votes in 2005 over Deeds, who was the Democratic nominee. Their respective primary victories set up a rematch in November 2009, this time for governor. McDonnell deemphasized the crime and cultural issues he had worked on for years and ran as a jobs candidate at a time when Virginia was hit fairly hard by the national recession. Over the past 40 years, Virginia’s tradition has been to switch parties about once every decade and, every time a new party has won the presidency starting in 1976, to elect a governor of the other party the following year.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Long ignored in presidential politics, Virginia was a major battleground in 2008. In the first half of the 20th century, it was part of the solid Democratic South. From 1952 to 1960, it obeyed the “golden silence” of Democratic Sen. Harry Byrd and voted Republican. It voted narrowly for Democrat Lyndon Johnson for president in 1964, and then voted Republican in the next 10 elections. But over time the margins narrowed. Democrat Bill Clinton lost here by only 48%-46% in 1996. In 2000, George W. Bush won 52%-44%. In 2004, Democrats, heartened by Mark Warner’s election as governor in 2001, targeted the state early. John Kerry spent $1 million in advertising in the spring and early summer. But in August, the polls showed Bush well ahead, and Virginia dropped off the target list. Bush lost Northern Virginia 51%-48% and his statewide margin was reduced to 54%-45%, just 3 percentage points above his national average.
In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama targeted Virginia from start to finish, with satisfying results. His organizing efforts for the February 12 primary gave him a head start. He won the primary 64%-35% over Hillary Rodham Clinton—one of his best showings in the nation. Still, Republicans had difficulty believing polls showing Obama leading throughout most of the summer and fall, but the polls proved accurate. He won the state 53%-46%, exactly at the national average, running 8 percentage points ahead of John Kerry’s showing in 2004. Another way to look at it: Republican nominee John McCain got 8,000 more votes than Bush; Obama got 505,000 more votes than Kerry.
In Northern Virginia, the Obama campaign registered immigrants and young singles and carried the region 59%-40%. In Tidewater and metro Richmond, there was more emphasis on registering African-Americans, and turnout rose 19% and 20%, respectively, way ahead of population growth in those two areas. Obama ran 10 percentage points ahead of Kerry in Tidewater, winning 56%-43%, and 9 percentage points ahead of Kerry in metro Richmond, winning an area assumed to be staunchly Republican by 53%-47%. In the rest of the state, Obama ran only 5 percentage points ahead of Kerry. The county returns show sharp improvement in areas with many African-Americans. The Obama campaign opened offices and canvassed in counties where no one had ever seen a Democratic operation before. But that was not effective everywhere. In the Shenandoah Valley, where there are few blacks, he ran only slightly ahead of Kerry, and in southwest Virginia, where there are almost none, turnout was down and Obama’s percentages were lower than Kerry’s. The impact of Obama’s organization was apparent from the exit poll showing that 22% of voters were contacted by his campaign compared to 10% contacted by McCain’s. Obama did not triumph everywhere. He lost non-college whites 66%-32% and young whites 56%-42%. But white Democrats stuck with him 86%-14%. Quite clearly, the state that elected a black governor 19 years earlier was not averse to electing a black president.
Virginia has not had much of a tradition of presidential primaries, but that changed in 2008 as well. Virginia did hold presidential primaries on the original Super Tuesday in March 1988, when it voted for Republican George H. W. Bush and Democrat Jesse Jackson, but it then switched back to choosing delegates at state conventions. Republicans held a primary in 2000, in which George W. Bush beat McCain 53%-44%. In 2004, Virginia held its presidential primary in February in order to gain the attention of presidential candidates and the national media. But candidate Wesley Clark concentrated on Tennessee and John Edwards split his time between Tennessee and southwest Virginia. They may have thought that Kerry had an insuperable lead in Northern Virginia. As it turned out, Kerry carried every part of the state and won 52% of the vote, to 27% for Edwards and 9% for Clark.
For 2008, Virginia scheduled primaries for February 12, one week after Super Tuesday. Many people had expected both nominations to be settled by then, but the Democratic nomination was still very much in play and the Republican nomination, though pretty obviously headed to McCain, was still being contested. Obama showed his mettle in this contest, out-organizing the Clinton campaign and, with his big victories the same day in Maryland and the District of Columbia, generating an enthusiasm that proved to be contagious for the rest of the month. He went on to win 11 straight contests. Turnout was 986,000, more than double the 396,000 in 2004. Obama won 64%-35%, his biggest percentage in any primary but those in the District of Columbia (75%), Georgia (66%) and Illinois (65%). Obama carried Northern Virginia 61%-39%, running well in upscale areas as usual. But he also won over 70% of the vote in Tidewater and metro Richmond, reflecting a major effort at turning out black voters. He even prevailed, 54%-45%, in the rest of the state. Clinton carried only one of the 11 congressional districts, the “Fighting 9th” in southwest Virginia.
The Republican contest attracted less attention, and, significantly in a state with no party registration, only about half as many voters, 489,000. McCain beat Mike Huckabee 50%-41%. Most of McCain’s margin came from Northern Virginia, where he won 60% of the votes. He got 49% in Tidewater, 52% in metro Richmond and only 41% in the rest of the state, as Huckabee carried almost everything west of the big metro areas. McCain’s high mark was in Alexandria, just outside Washington, where he got 70% of the vote. Huckabee’s was in Campbell County, just outside of Lynchburg and within hailing distance of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, where he got 71% of the vote.
|111th Congress: 6 D, 5 R|
Republicans won control of both houses of the Virginia Legislature in 1999 and, with Republican Jim Gilmore as governor, controlled the redistricting process in 2001 for the first time ever. Republican legislators promptly drew new lines, which made relatively minimal changes. They moved some black precincts from the 4th District to the 3rd and increased its black majority, while making the 4th more secure. They followed the wishes of the three Northern Virginia incumbents, two Republicans and one Democrat, who all strengthened themselves. They made the 9th District, held for many years by Democrat Rick Boucher, a little more Republican, but it would have been difficult to do otherwise without drawing a geographical monstrosity. Bobby Scott, of the black-majority 3rd District, raised questions about the 3rd and 4th District lines, but the U.S. Justice Department approved the plan.
In 2007 and again in 2009, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates rejected a proposal for a nonpartisan redistricting procedure. Democrats won a 21-19 majority in the state Senate in 2007, which has four-year terms. That should assure them of at least a veto on any redistricting plan, provided they can hold together. (They are split between metro and rural members.) Republicans won a 53-45 margin in the state House in 2007, with two independents. That could conceivably be overturned in 2009, although most Virginia House seats have not been seriously contested in recent years. So it is likely that neither party will be in control. Since Virginia is not expected to gain a House seat in the reapportionment following the 2010 census, the legislators and the new governor might opt to compromise on an incumbent-protection plan. But it’s not clear who the incumbents will be. In 2008, Democrats captured the 2nd and 5th districts by narrow margins, and the 11th District by a wider margin. Republicans may have a chance to win one or more of these seats back in 2010. In any case, Virginia is one more example of how partisan redistricting can be unavailing over the course of an intercensal decade: Republicans devised this plan, but Democrats now hold six of the 11 seats.