Jon Gregory, director in APCO’s Washington office, served as a legislative aide for a House Democratic Member.
Over the past two decades, the state of Virginia has become much more politically competitive and has considerably expanded and diversified its population. Virginia’s status as “The Old Dominion,” a state that produced five presidents before 1900 and has always been known as a traditional state, is changing. The old-South Democratic Party political dominance in Virginia began to change after the civil rights movement and was almost completely gone by the 1990s. In a similar manner, the Republican Party dominance at the federal level has shown signs of weakness with the election of two Democratic senators and the first Democratic presidential victory (President Obama in 2008) since LBJ.
There are perhaps no two individuals in Virginia who personify this change and represent their parties in this transition than former governors and current Senate candidates George Allen (R) and Tim Kaine (D). Allen is often associated with the rise and resurgence of the GOP in Virginia in the mid-1990s after decades of Democratic dominance in statewide offices. Similarly, Kaine represents in many ways the new Democratic Party in Virginia, which has ascended to new heights over the past 10 years.
These observations raise the questions: Which way will Virginia head in 2012 elections? Will it lean in the direction of returning to its roots as a “Red” state of tradition and the Old Dominion, or will it continue to move in the direction of a “Purple” state, reflecting what is perhaps the new modern reality of politics in Virginia?
The final Virginia Senate debate that occurred last Thursday night in Blacksburg showcased the candidates and issues that could answer these questions. The dynamics of the Virginia Senate race are closely related to the presidential contest between President Barack Obama (D) and former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney (R). Each political party and their respective campaigns are testing messages that resonate with voters to try to gain advantage and link the two races. Virginia has now become something new, a Purple state that to a growing extent is an indicator of larger issues, swing states voters and the national mood.
For Allen, his ability to link Kaine’s stewardship of Virginia to President Obama’s questionable economic record and to Democratic Party political activities when Kaine served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee has proven effective. So have Allen’s attacks and positions on taxes, the national debt, defense spending (the fiscal cliff) and energy (oil drilling and coal). Each has raised the necessary doubts about Kaine in the Old Dominion.
In a similar manner, Tim Kaine has effectively promoted women’s issues, immigration, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, taxes and bipartisanship to his advantage. Kaine has also used his personal and professional history to draw a contrast with Allen, who made serious missteps in his 2006 Senate campaign.
Virginia, like much of America, continues to see polarization. Conservative House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) and liberal Congressman Bobby Scott (D), a leading Member of the House Judiciary Committee, represent adjoining districts but can have widely divergent views. Virginia voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and has switched governors for the last 20 years. In addition, Virginia has an independent streak, as some states do, and Virgil Goode’s presence in the presidential race adds to a lack of consensus.
What is crucial and different about Virginia now versus 20 years ago is that an influx of new voters to the state as a result of the Dulles corridor high-tech and defense contracting boom, along with new immigrants and other non-Virginians, has diversified voters and their attitudes to the point where courting voters and building support is more complicated.
In a strange way, this means that the phrase “As Virginia goes, so goes the nation” is not outlandish. On election night, early returns and exit polling for certain groups and issues could preview what happens in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and other states, many of which are truly different than Virginia.
Virginia seems to be a different state than it was even six years ago. Its recent changes both offer opportunities and risks for Republicans and Democrats, suggesting that George Allen and Tim Kaine will face a difficult path to victory no matter who wins. For the moment, no one knows in which direction Virginia will go, but we will find out on November 6.