By Frank Blechman
Just this once, I am going to give away the answer right at the beginning.
Question: IS VIRGINIA BLUE (solidly Democratic)? The national pundits certainly think so.
My Answer: NO.
Explanation: Virginia voters have given statewide majorities to Democrats in presidential and US Senate elections since 2008, and for governor in five of the last six elections since 2001. Democrats overcame Republican gerrymandering in 2011 to finally win control of the congressional delegation in 2018, and both houses of the General Assembly in 2019. This year, the Democratic ticket carried almost every city and urban and suburban county in the Commonwealth. Growing population and increasing diversity in Tidewater and Northern Virginia helped tip the balance. The Democrats’ winning steak has left the Republican party of Virginia in some disarray, with a painfully weak bench for statewide contests next year.
Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were even more solidly part of the ‘blue wall’ [than VA] until suddenly, in 2016, they weren’t…. In 2009, not that long ago, “Bob for Jobs” McDonnell became governor, carrying part of Northern Virginia (including Fairfax County)…. In both 2016 and 2020, [in] large parts of the state, the Democratic ticket got less than 30% of the vote; in the lower Shenandoah Valley and the coal counties, 20-25%.
So how can I say that the state is not now a solidly Democratic bastion?
- Caution: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were even more solidly part of the ‘blue wall’ until suddenly, in 2016, they weren’t. Parts of Virginia seem solid, but in 2009, not that long ago, “Bob for Jobs” McDonnell became governor, carrying part of Northern Virginia (including Fairfax County), the Richmond suburbs, and Tidewater. He led massive wins in the House of Delegates that made the very skewed 2011 redistricting possible. In 2005 and 2007, I was involved in several campaigns to win back historically Republican Delegate seats here in NOVA. When Obama carried those districts in 2008, the state party and the media declared them safe Democratic seats. We lost them in the McDonnell wave of 2009.
- Math: The urban crescent (from NOVA, through Richmond, to Hampton Roads) has grown to make up over 65% of the state population. Democrats regularly get 60% of the vote there. That computes to nearly 39% of the total votes in the state. It is a very strong base. All a Democrat has to do is get a little more than 35% of the vote in the rest of the state to get 50%+1 overall. That seems doable, except that in both 2016 and 2020, there were large parts of the state where the Democratic ticket got less than 30% of the vote. In the lower Shenandoah Valley and the coal counties, 20-25% was more like it. That math shows how weak Democratic performance in the crescent and a continued erosion in rural areas could easily produce a statewide shortfall in 2022 or 2024.
- Motivation: Polling in 2018 and this year showed that the #1 issue on voters’ minds was not health care, gun safety, or even the economy. The singular issue for the last four years has been Donald J. Trump. His combative New York style never played well here. His failure to deliver on his promises and his lies generated active opposition, even among lifelong Republicans, particularly in NOVA. The strong Democratic Party performance seems to me to be more anti-Trump than pro-Dem. In 2021 and 2022, many of those suburban moderate Republicans may feel a strong need to repent for the lapses of 2018 and 2020, returning to help revive and rebuild their party.
The strong Democratic Party performance [this year] seems to be more anti-Trump than pro-Dem. In 2021 and 2022, many of those suburban moderate Republicans may feel a strong need to . . . return to help revive and rebuild their party.
With the Donald off the ballot in 2021 and 2022, Democrats should not breathe easily. The patterns of the last four years are no assurance of the future. The legislative gusher produced by the 2020 General Assembly may have fulfilled campaign promises for the new-found majority, but it did not win any friends in rural areas in the general election this year. Republican strategists do not have to be brilliant to craft campaigns attacking Democrats as threats to the Virginia way of life; restricting guns, mocking the long tradition of the ‘citizen legislature’, legalizing drugs, tearing down monuments, coddling immigrants, and probably raising taxes, too. I could write those campaign speeches in my sleep. So could you.
Let us celebrate 2020 as a year in which voter participation defied a pandemic and an autocrat to elect candidates representing maturity and sanity. Let’s hope the redistricting commission produces maps that make sense and don’t wind up being successfully challenged in the courts. Let’s hope that the coronavirus vaccines help our economy return to some state of health. Yet, while we hope, let’s remember how fragile our 2020 coalition is. Let’s work to articulate and enact policies that attract, rather than repel, rural voters. Let’s build the solid statewide coalition we pretend we already have.