Virginia Governor's Preview

Virginia Governor's Preview

By Jay Cost and Sean Trende - February 19, 2009


Virginia Republicans have had a rough time of late. In the past decade they lost two Governor's races, both Senate seats, and control of the state Senate. Last year Barack Obama became only the second Democratic Presidential candidate to carry the state in the past 60 years.

This year's governor's race gives Republicans the clearest shot at a top-of-the-ticket election as they have had in years. A loss here cannot be chalked up to circumstance, or an unpopular Republican incumbent, as so many of the GOP's recent losses arguably could be. It therefore provides a good test of whether the state has truly become blue. It also is of importance for the next decade - if the GOP can capture the Governor's mansion and flip one state Senator into its caucus, it can control the next round of redistricting.

It also will provide an early metric for the GOP's performance in 2010. The party controlling the White House has lost the Virginia gubernatorial race every four years since 1977. This is because new Administrations typically suffer from a lull in approval toward the end of the first year - call it a honeymoon hangover. If this trend is broken it could indicate that the Obama Administration has avoided such a lull. A loss could also indicate that the GOP's national problems were deeper than simply problems with Bush. To the extent there is a broader problem, the GOP may find it difficult to bounce back from 2006 and 2008. And either way, the race will be touted by the national media, providing a morale boost for the winning party.

The Political Background

The question in Virginia is always whether the Republican party can hold together its somewhat unwieldy three-legged coalition of historically Republican Virginians in the mountainous western portion of the state, social conservatives in the rural areas east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and suburbanites in northern Virginia and in the Richmond/Hampton Roads areas. Why this coalition is having troubles recently could fill a book. For our purposes, we will oversimplify somewhat and observe the following.

Unlike many Southern states, Virginia has always had a vigorous Republican party. At first it was based in the mountains and hills east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where there were few blacks and little historical support for slavery (there was an additional ancient base among blacks that, when combined with western Virginia, made Republicans competitive statewide into the late 1800s; this was wiped out by the poll tax in 1902). They also began carrying Arlington county in the northeast as early as the 1920s. This area, like the southwest, was moderately conservative, and gave Republicans a second base of support. It grew quickly, from 7% of Virginia's electorate in 1920 to almost 20% of that electorate in 1960.

The addition of the second base made Republicans competitive; the addition of the third base made Republicans a majority. Virginia Governor and Senator Harry Byrd had run a political machine out of his base in Winchester since in the 1920s. Byrd was conservative - his Poole-Rosenthal ideological score places him with a voting pattern on non-racial issues comparable to Ted Stevens - and the Democrats he helped elect were similarly conservative.1. By suppressing the votes of African Americans and poor whites through a poll tax and literacy tests (which halved the size of the electorate between 1900 and 1904), the Byrd machine kept the state Democratic party anchored to the right.

A 1966 US Supreme Court decision definitively ended Virginia's poll tax. Along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this enfranchised thousands of Virginia voters. It also spelled the death knell for the Byrd Machine. Many of these conservative Democrats, who could no longer win primaries in the Democratic party, began voting Republican, at the national level at first and statewide soon after.2 This left the Democrats with a substantial new base among the state's newly enfranchised African American population and poorer whites, combined with Democrats in the Cumberland Mountain Area (which followed West Virginia to the Democrats in the late 1920s) and white liberals in the urban areas such as Arlington County.

The influx of very conservative voters created a dominant Republican majority in Virginia at the time that many Southern states were just beginning to align with Republicans. Democrats only carried a handful of counties in the state in 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988. This influx also created an inherent instability in the Virginia Republican party. The moderately conservative Republicans such as the commonwealth's first Republican Governor since Reconstruction - Linwood Holton -- had little in common with the social conservatives, except that they were not liberals.

So long as the national Democrats remained a truly liberal party, this coalition could endure, as the moderates were still closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats. But the national Democratic party evolved in the late 1980s. In 1992, Bill Clinton's socially moderate, fiscally conservative message allowed him to become the first Democrat since LBJ to run even in Northern Virginia. Republicans enjoyed continued success at the state level by emphasizing crime, fiscal responsibility, and moderately conservative stances on social issues - people quickly forget that Jim Gilmore placed great emphasis on his support for legalized abortion in the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Regardless, as the national Democratic party repositioned itself toward the center, and as the state Republican party moved rightward, it became easier and easier for state Democrats to pry away one of the three bases of the GOP's support.

At first, Democrats did not win by building upon the Bill Clinton coalition. Mark Warner explicitly campaigned as a conservative Democrat who would not hike taxes and would not ban guns; his coalition more closely resembled the rural map from Jimmy Carter's narrow defeat.3 The maps of Tim Kaine, Jim Webb, and Barack Obama, by contrast, show little headway made in rural areas, and instead rely upon the addition of strong performances in Northern Virginia to the party's natural base among African Americans, city dwellers, and liberals in Arlington and Albemarle counties.4

We can see these changes in the following chart, which tracks Republican performances in the various census bureau areas in the 1993, 1997, 2001, and 2005 gubernatorial elections. Megapolis means Northern Virginia, Large City is the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas, small city tends to be the Shenandoah Valley region, while the remaining areas are spread throughout the state. In 2005, Republicans rolled back many of the advances that Mark Warner had made in less urban areas in 2001, only to lose yet more ground in more heavily urban areas. In other words, the 2005 Democratic coalition is more regionally stratified than Warner's unique 2001 coalition.

Republican Share of Vote - Virginia Gubernatorial Elections.jpg

So what will 2009 look like? To understand that we have to briefly examine the candidates.

The Candidates

The Democrats

The first candidate for Governor on the Democratic side (the primary will be in June) is State Senator Creigh Deeds. Deeds, who represents a district that meanders west from Charlottesville to the West Virginia border, almost won a statewide race for Attorney General in 2005, coming about 350 votes shy of defeating Republican Bob McDonnell. Deeds finished last in the fundraising race for October-December 2008. He is handicapped by the fact that he remains in the Virginia General Assembly, which is not allowed to fundraise while in session. For a candidate who has already run a statewide race to be stuck in third place in the most recent primary polling is not a great sign.

Delegate Brian Moran (younger brother of controversial congressman Jim Moran) has an excellent base in Northern Virginia from which to campaign. He also locked up several endorsements of Democratic members of the House of Delegates, which he hopes will allow him to piggyback off of their local machines in the primary election. In what is likely to be a low-turnout affair, such support is important. Moran resigned his seat in December of 2008 to run for the Governorship, and is not hobbled by the fundraising ban.

The entrance of former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe into the race scrambled the state's political calculus. Doubts were immediately raised about the strength of McAuliffe's ties to the state, but he seems to have amassed an understanding of state and local issues fairly rapidly. The early analysis was that he and Moran would split Northern Virginia's votes, creating an opening for Deeds.

But McAuliffe has quickly used his DNC connections to raise nearly a million dollars in a half quarter. Virginia does not have limits on contributions to state offices, so McAuliffe's donors can contribute as much money as they want. This has allowed McAuliffe to run early ads in Richmond and Hampton Roads. If McAuliffe can nail down that base of support, he probably needs only to come in second place in Northern Virginia and rural Virginia to secure the nomination. His ability to advertise freely could allow him to that. And with his fundraising prowess, he might also be able to win in areas where there are no Democratic delegates (such as Richmond's West End), where Brian Moran's endorsements will do him no good. He was tied with Moran for first place in the most recent primary poll (which had more than 50% undecided).

McAuliffe is under great scrutiny, and a gaffe could damage him more than it would other candidates. And there is a risk that his brash style and fundraising prowess could create a backlash. Deeds could drop out of the race, creating an opening for Moran, or McAuliffe and Moran could destroy each other, creating an opening for Deeds. Nonetheless, as of this writing, McAuliffe seems to have the most realistic scenario for winning.

The Republican

Republicans coalesced early around Attorney General Robert McDonnell. McDonnell, who served for twelve years in the House of Delegates before his election as Attorney General, is an articulate, charismatic politician with good political skills. He has a family that seems made for a political commercial. His political base is in Virginia Beach, an area of the state where Republicans have had problems as of late, and his years of army experience will likely help him in the state. McDonnell is an across-the-board conservative, which may cause him some problems later in the campaign.

How It Plays out

McDonnell starts out 2009 avoiding many of the problems that have plagued previous Republican nominees. He won't face a divisive challenge for the nomination, as Mark Earley did in 2001. He is well spoken and charismatic, something Jerry Kilgore could not claim. He seems unlikely to make unforced errors that previous Republicans have made, such as directing racially charged language at an opponent's videographer, or running ads claiming that his opponent would not execute Hitler (a claim which coincided with Kilgore relinquishing his lead in 2005).

At the same time, the Democrats will not enjoy a few advantages that recent Democratic victors have had in their relatively narrow victories. They have a competitive primary, which may leave the winner financially drained, battered, and perhaps positioned too far to the left. Also, Tim Kaine remains popular, but not as popular as Mark Warner was at the end of his term. This means Kaine will have less political goodwill to transfer to a would-be successor.

McDonnell is a solid conservative with a fairly united party. It seems unlikely that even Creigh Deeds - whom McDonnell has already defeated statewide once - would make substantial inroads in rural areas or in the southwest, especially since Deeds seems to be moving left from his 2005 run. In other words, it seems unlikely that a winning Democratic map would look like Mark Warner's map. Instead, a winning Democrat will probably have to pull together a Wilder/Kaine/Webb/Obama map. This is important, as it means that McDonnell likely does not have to worry about being compromised in rural Virginia (as Earley, Kilgore, and Allen did), and can more easily tack to the center.

That leaves a race which is a toss-up. Remember, the danger for Republicans in Virginia doesn't come from the growth of northern Virginia, which only comprises about 3% more of the electorate today than it did twenty years ago. Instead, the danger is that, while Republicans are coming close to maxing out their vote in the rural areas, Democrats are making gains in what is already a large portion of the electorate (see chart above).

But will those gains continue? This is the million dollar question. The key for Democrats hoping to reach beyond their base in Arlington county and the cities has been a recent reputation for fiscal restraint, combined with centrism on social issues. With the national Republicans (and during the Gilmore Administration, the state Republicans) abandoning both fiscal restraint and pursuing a fairly aggressively conservative social agenda, it is easy to understand the backlash against Republicans in these areas. Simply put, a moderate suburban voter given a choice between a staunch conservative and a moderately liberal Democrat optimizes their utility by voting for the moderate liberal.

Without George W. Bush on the front pages of the Washington Post, and with Democratic executives increasingly taking the heat for the performance of the economy as the year drags on, the Democrats may see their enthusiasm in these areas decline. Indeed, there is already some evidence that Bush's exit has depressed Democratic turnout - Republicans came sixteen votes away from winning Brian Moran's heavily Democratic House of Delegates seat, and they came a few percentage points away from winning the Fairfax County Board of Supervisor's chair. Perhaps Barack Obama will remain popular and perhaps he will have political capital to expend ginning up his base in Virginia, but that remains to be seen (and remember, President Bush's popularity in 2001 did not help Earley).

Regardless of who the Democrat is, much will depend on the performance and perception of Bob McDonnell. As mentioned above, McDonnell avoids many of the problems that have beset previous Republican nominees. But there is one potential problem - he is a bona fide social conservative. McDonnell will likely be attacked for his law degree from Regent University (founded by Pat Robertson), and comments he made while he was a Delegate to the effect that anyone engaging in oral or anal sex could be found in violation of Virginia's "crimes against nature" law (he also claimed not to remember whether he had ever violated the law). Opposition researchers will likely try to dig up more quotes and votes from McDonnell to portray him as beholden to the religious right.

In other words, while McDonnell will seek to portray himself as an even-keeled family man, his opponents will seek to pry Northern Virginia away from the winning Republican coalition by portraying him as a radical, beholden to the religious right. The comment about the crimes against nature law could affect him much as Allen's macaca comment or Kilgore's death penalty ad affected them - by becoming wedges between the Republicans and their Northern Virginia base.

On the other hand, there are certainly limits to this tactic - Virginia did ban both gay marriages and civil unions in 2006 by a double digit margin (it barely lost in Fairfax county but won handily in Loudoun and Prince William counties). And Kilgore's and Allen's mistakes came toward the end of their campaigns; McDonnell has the better part of a year to neutralize his. But if McDonnell comes across as strident on social issues as previous Republican nominees have appeared, Northern Virginia voters may feel further alienated from Republicans.

McDonnell is unlikely to acquiesce to such a portrayal, and his public comments seem to indicate that he understands the need for Republicans to try to compete in Northern Virginia at a higher level than they have been competing.

There is also the question of what occurs in the Democratic primary. If the candidates find themselves pushed far enough to the left, and if the Obama Administration tacks left, we may see a situation analogous to the 1970s and 80s, where moderate suburbanites see a socially conservative party as the lesser of two evils.

Both parties obviously have their strengths and weaknesses this cycle, and neither party has a decisive advantage. The most recent polling shows McDonnell narrowly besting all three Democrats, but about a quarter of the electorate is undecided. Because of this, the race starts as a pure tossup.


The result of this was a Democratic party that was strongest in Southside and the Southern Piedmont of Virginia (where Republicans had no historical base), and which was largely dependent on the professional class in the area (those who could vote). The map of Virginia's congressional districts in 1952 by Poole-Rosenthal score (a very liberal member would be deep blue, a very conservative member would be very red) below demonstrates this:


It is impossible to tell which districts are held by the three Republicans and the seven Democrats! This is even more telling when one considers that, for reasons I won't go into here, the Poole-Rosenthal scores effectively filter out votes on social issues, especially involving race. In part this reflects the conservatism of the Democrats (the second most conservative member of the delegation is a Democrat), but it also reflects the relative moderation of these Republicans.

[2] It isn't quite accurate to say that these Byrd Democrats became Republicans (or Independents) because of the race issue. It is more accurate to observe that many of these Democrats were already more closely aligned with the Republican party than with the Democratic party, even on economic issues, and certainly on emerging social issues unrelated to race. When both parties embraced the one thing that had held many of these conservative voters to the Democrats since 1938 - civil rights - there was nothing holding these voters to the Democrats.








Sean Trende can be contacted at

Mr. Trende is an attorney in Virginia. The views expressed in this article are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of his law firm.

Jay Cost and Sean Trende

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