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Based on previous elections and polling for Nov. 3, the time when Democrats lacked urban and suburban support in Virginia seems to have ended.

In the past three elections, Virginia has shifted from a swing state to a solid democratic stronghold. This shift, according to political science and sociology experts, has had three key motivators: demographic shifts, partisanship and growing attention to race and equality. 

“I think Virginia really is a tale of two states,” Susan Bodnar-Deren, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said. “You have more Democratic support in places like Richmond and more Republican support in areas west, especially west of Charlottesville.”

Historically, Democrats have had varied success in Virginia until the 2008 Barack Obama (D) versus John McCain (R) presidential election.

In 2008, President Obama was the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, in 1968, to win the state of Virginia. President Franklin Roosevelt is the only Democratic presidential candidate to win all eleven former Confederate states in 1944.

President Jimmy Carter came close in 1976, although he didn’t win Virginia, a loss attributed by J. Miles Coleman, a political cartographer and the associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, to the fact that Carter didn’t have urban and suburban support. 

Based on previous elections and polling for Nov. 3, the time when Democrats lacked urban and suburban support in Virginia seems to have ended and a new era of state politics may be on the rise.

But these trends aren’t specific to Virginia. There have been similar changes in other suburban areas and states. Specifically, in areas outside of major cities such as the Philadelphia suburbs, Detroit suburbs, Milwaukee suburbs and Houston suburbs, Martin Cohen, a political science professor at JMU, said.

“Pennsylvania, you know, some have said is Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Alabama in the middle,” Cohen said.

Demographic shifts

Bodnar-Deren moved to Virginia from New Jersey in 2011 and has seen the increase in population in areas like northern Virginia and Richmond.

“Certainly what has made Virginia a more blue state in the last three or four election cycles has been the explosion of population in northern Virginia,” Cohen said. “The encroachment of D.C. suburbs further and further into Virginia proper has swamped other parts of the state that lean to the Republican side, like the Valley and like other parts of southwest Virginia.”

The most recent census data shows an increase in population of over 500,000 Virginians from 2000 to 2010. This growth is largely located in urban and suburban centers around Richmond and northern Virginia, with Loudoun County’s population growing by more than 30%. Smaller cities like Charlottesville and the Harrisonburg Metro area have also seen a population increase.

In an Oct. 27 event where Warner and other Harrisonburg Democratic candidates thanked supporters for the local get-out-the-vote effort, Warner stated that the Valley is shifting, too. With the increase in Democratic support in areas like Harrisonburg, the political landscape of the Shenandoah Valley might also start turning blue.

The shift in ideology has been seen in the Richmond area as well as in Norfolk as a new coalition, consisting of specifically college educated white and Black voters, forms in more urban and suburban areas according to Coleman.

The voting shift toward Democratic candidates has been seen in the recent Senate elections, in which a Republican hasn’t won the state since Sen. John Warner (R) in 2002. Virginia congressional district elections have been more divided than the race for Senate, but seven of the eleven congressional seats up for election turned or remained in control of Democrats after the 2018 midterm election. In the Virginia General Assembly, Democrats claimed a majority of both the Senate of Virginia and the Virginia House of Delegates in the 2019 election.

In the 2018 midterm, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Dem. Va.) was able to defeat incumbent Rep. Dave Brat (R) for control of the Virginia 7th District, a seat that for the past eight years was red.

“Virginia Republicans are going to have to find some way to become more competitive in urban areas again,” Coleman said. “Compare that to a place like southwest Virginia, where Trump in 2016. He was in the 80s percentage wise in most of those counties. He’s basically maxed out the Republican share in areas that are oftentimes losing population.”

Virginia Republicans have appealed to rural voters in the past three election cycles, campaigning on the messages of strong immigration policy, tougher actions on crime and further protections for the Second Amendment and the promise of gun ownership rights. 

Experts, like Coleman at UVA’s Center for Politics, have stated that this plan to appeal to rural areas with a shrinking population could cost Republicans elections down the road in Virginia.

“It’s just not a good formula long term,” Coleman said.

State Republicans aren’t locked into their fate with an appeal to rural voters. The results of the Nov. 3 election will better inform political experts across Virginia if Republicans are able to gain support in more Democratic areas. 

While increasing support in urban and suburban areas may not mean an electoral victory for candidates like Rep. Daniel Gade, who’s running for Senate against Sen. Mark Warner (D), it could provide a symbolic victory.

“If Gade could maybe come within 10 percentage points in places like Loudoun county or Prince William, it would probably be a big deal,” Coleman said. “One of the counties we have been watching that's trending blue is Chesterfield. If Gade could win a place like Chesterfield that would be something of a moral victory.”

The boom of Virginia’s northern suburbs may hurt candidates who align with President Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric because of a high number of voters in the area who work inside the beltway.

Incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) lost the 10th District of Virginia in 2018 by more than 45,000 votes, with Loudoun and Fairfax County both voting for Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) by more than 18%. This same district was overwhelmingly Republican during the congressional elections in 2012, 2014 and 2016. 

“Trump hurts himself tremendously with government workers, people who live in the D.C. suburbs, that see his assault on governmental norms as really personally reprehensible,” Cohen said. 

A similar pattern can be applied to areas like Norfolk City and the Tidewater region with career military and government workers, as well as Richmond.

Partisanship in Virginia

The trend toward straight-ticket or down-ballot voting — choosing one party and voting for all its candidates on the ballot — has been increasing in the U.S. in recent election cycles according to Cohen. Virginia isn’t different.

“What we saw in 2016 was that in every senate race, in every state there was a senate race, the winner of the presidential race, their party, won the senate race,” Cohen said. “Everything that I’ve seen Biden looks good in Virginia and Warner, as a popular incumbent, would seemingly have certainly the upper hand.”

Straight-ticket voting is often a driving force for candidates down the ballot in senatorial and congressional elections to ride the political coattails. However, there are a number of races in Virginia where state Democratic candidates are expected to run well ahead of their national party’s nominee.  

“Politics is almost becoming a bit more bland in that down-ballot races, a lot of the time they are very closely linked to what happens at the top of the ticket,” Coleman said. “Most polls have Biden winning the state of Virginia by maybe 9 to 10 [percentage] points; I could see Warner winning by 16 to 17 points.”

Looking at President Trump’s history in Virginia, which he lost in the 2016 election, Cohen and Coleman said that the Republican Party’s nominee may hurt other candidates’ chances in lower races.

Nationally, Republicans are defending many more seats in the Senate than Democrats who put their control in jeopardy.

“Especially with a Presidential candidate that's seemingly dragging down the ticket a little bit,” Cohen said. 

Race and equality:

In many ways the racial inequality in Virginia — a former Confederate state with Richmond serving as the capital of the Confederacy — has remained in the state but in different forms. 

The racial protests across the nation this summer were also seen in Virginia. In August, protestors on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a street that was dotted with statues of Confederate leaders and generals like Jebb Stewart and Stonewall Jackson, clashed with members of the Richmond Police Department, Henrico County Police Division and members of other local law enforcement agencies. 

While Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney removed several statues without legislative authorization from the state government, many statues remain covered with new spray paint graffiti. 

“I was in Richmond during the protests this summer,” Bodnar-Deren said. “I would march during the day and watch the peaceful protests and at night see the police helicopters circling the city.”

While countless Americans watched protests for racial change and equality, a section of the country denounced the Black Lives Matter movement. Organizations like the Proud Boys and other right wing groups have taken to the internet and have produced and shared a number of divisive memes and messages that are “anti-political correctness” and “anti-white guilt” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

 

“It would seem that in the Trump era that traditional fiscal or governmental conservatism has been replaced with social conservatism,” Bodnar-Deren said. “I don’t see Trump as embodying those traditional values of a conservative, politically.”

The social conservatism that Bodnar-Deren is referring to relates to race relations in the state.  Bodnar-Deren specially mentioned the summer of 2017 in Charlottesville where the nation watched Neo-nazis and white supremacists march and clash with opposition, resulting in the killing of Heather Heyer.

While many Americans saw this summer’s unrest as a troubling time for the nation, Bodnar-Deren said she believes it’s all a necessary part of change.

“I think you unfortunately need both, the peaceful protests and the shocking unrest,” Bodnar-Deren said. “We needed the March on Washington and the Black Panthers; we needed Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.”

Contact Ross Metcalf at metcalrs@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.