According to political experts, Virginia can be considered either the northernmost southern state or the southernmost northern state. Recent Democratic successes and shifting demographics seem to favor the latter view. The main areas of recent population growth have been Democratic areas — Northern Virginia, just outside the District of Columbia; the capital, Richmond; and Henrico County in the Richmond suburbs. Meanwhile, the population has declined in the southwest and in Hampton Roads, the former a Republican stronghold and the latter a battleground. From 2000 to 2010, Virginia’s Hispanic population, which tends to support Democrats, increased by 92 percent, with two-thirds of that growth concentrated in Northern Virginia.One experienced Republican activist argues that “Virginia is more like a purple state with a roller-coaster pattern than it is a red state turning blue.” But Mike Murphy, a longtime GOP political consultant, says: “The state is turning blue, and the Republicans are responding to that by turning crazy. That is a cycle that will electorally wipe out the party, at least at the state level.”
Tucker Martin, a veteran political strategist with extensive experience in the state, tells National Review that there’s a disconnect between what Virginia is and what many Virginia Republicans believe it to be. “The Democrats are on home turf now, and Republicans need to branch out and create their own brand,” Martin says. “The problem is that the Trump era has made it almost impossible to do that.”
Over the last few years, these factors have converged to push Virginia from purple to blue. Even as its quickly changing demographics have favored the Left, a stripe of populist Republican politician has arisen on the right, appealing to a core of supporters who have driven the state GOP even further rightward, distancing moderate voters and, in some cases, encouraging Democratic engagement.
Enter Donald Trump, a political outsider much like Brat who surged onto the scene in 2015 to compete for the presidential nomination, appealing to many of the same parts of the GOP base that Brat had wooed. Though Trump’s strategy played well nationally, it wasn’t as successful in Virginia. The businessman even struggled to find a state politician willing to chair his state campaign until Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, stepped in.
Trump barely won the Virginia primary on March 1, with Florida senator Marco Rubio coming in a close second. Tellingly, Trump received only a plurality of the vote. This lack of widespread support was a sign of things to come. Virginia was the only southern state to go to Hillary Clinton, who won it by more than Barack Obama had in 2012.
Stewart’s far-right rhetoric occasionally slipped into outright support for white supremacists. In early 2017, he called anti-Muslim conspiracy crank Paul Nehlen (a primary challenger to House speaker Paul Ryan) one of his “personal heroes,” and his campaign paid Nehlen a fundraising commission for the use of his email list. Stewart also appeared during the primary with Jason Kessler, an organizer of last August’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.
Recently, Stewart disavowed both Nehlen and Kessler, saying he had been unaware of their extremism. Shaun Kenney, former executive director of the state party, calls this claim nonsense, saying “everyone in Charlottesville knew what Jason Kessler was and knew what he represented.”
In November, Gillespie lost to sitting lieutenant governor Ralph Northam by nearly nine percentage points. Democratic candidates took 15 seats in the house of delegates, where Republicans had held a 66–34 advantage. One delegate race was deemed a tie, and a random drawing allotted the seat to the Republican, allowing the GOP to retain a 51–49 majority — literally dependent on the luck of the draw. The biggest story was turnout among Democrats, who voted at unprecedented, presidential-election levels: One analysis estimated that turnout among under-30-year-olds in Virginia was 34 percent, nearly twice its 17 percent in the 2009 gubernatorial race. Nearly seven out of ten of those voters cast their ballots for Northam.
“Trump has made it a social value among those Democratic-leaning, younger voters to be against Trump and to demonstrate it by voting,” Murphy explains. “Trump has solved the problem the Democrats have faced for decades, which is how to get their younger, unengaged voters to show up and pull the ‘D’ lever.”
[E]xperts predict that Republicans can’t expect to win Virginia with only the segments of the electorate that Trump won. Stewart’s general-election campaign will be the test. While populist rhetoric undoubtedly appeals to enough of the base to hand primary elections to Trump and Stewart, Virginia is slipping away from the GOP: The Cook Political Report just moved Brat’s reelection campaign in the seventh district from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.” “The trend over the last 20 years has been that, as the Republican party pushes more to the right, Virginia has shifted to the left, and it’s created a chasm,” Martin explains. “Trump has broadened that chasm. Corey Stewart makes it a little wider. As a party, we need to look at ways to close that divide.”
So long as they remain the party of Corey Stewart, Virginia Republicans are likely to stand on the outside looking in.
Bearing Drift continues the dire picture for the RPV. Here are highlights:
The Wason Center’s Rachel Bitecofer has published a new paper that will hearten Virginia Democrats. Nationally, the party is “primed to pick up enough seats to control the House.”
In Virginia, Bitecofer pulls no punches: Republican Reps. Dave Brat and Barbara Comstock will lose. And the state’s other race to watch, the 2nd District, is a pure toss-up. And for Republicans, the bad news looks like it will continue for as long as Donald Trump is in the White House.
Part of the reason is “negative partisanship” — the negative attitudes, even extending outside of politics that members of the major political parties have toward the other party’s candidates. The negative feelings are stronger among those supporting the party out of power. All that negativity keeps them motivated.
The deciding factor for Democrats is getting their own partisans to the polls: Democrats lose Independents quite often, and in elections they win and they lose because they have a population advantage in many places and when their partisans turn out in high numbers, it trumps the combined loss of Republicans and Independents, assuming they don’t lose the latter group by wide margins.
[I]f it’s true, it could mean that races that were already going to be expensive and rough, such as Virginia’s 10th, will be even costlier and much rougher than we imagined. The reason? Democrats will do everything possible to raise turnout among their base voters and to capture a good share of the true independents.
According to the Monmouth University poll of the 10th — the only data we have so far –Democrats are already doing what’s necessary to reach both goals, long before the mud starts flying. In Monmouth’s “turnout surge” model, in areas where “Trump is unpopular,” Democratic nominee Jennifer Wexton leads Comstock 51 percent to 40 percent.
Another key to Bitecofer’s model, and another troubling sign for Republicans: the number of college graduates in a district. She looked at Virginia’s 2017 House of Delegates races and discovered this: Of the 17 Clinton districts in Virginia, Democrats won nearly all of them. They even picked up a seat in a district that broke for Trump. And the most significant factor explaining districts that flipped from those that didn’t (other than the district’s partisan advantage and challenger spending relative to incumbent spending) is the percent of college educated residents residing within the district.
Brat once complained,“women are in my grill no matter where I go.” Negative partisanship means they still are. The question is whether the energy can be sustained until November. Bitecofer argues it can and will be — and that it will continue far beyond then, as Republicans demonstrated when Barack Obama was in the White House.
The leadership of the RVP decided years ago to sell its soul to Christofascists and white supremacists (the two for the most part overlap, in my view) and mow it is repealing the whirlwind of tying its future to minority extremists. The RPV deserves every misfortune that befalls it.