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Who Has the Edge in the Va. Governor's Race?

Who Has the Edge in the Va. Governor's Race?

By Sean Trende - May 23, 2013

With the New Jersey governor's race looking like a cakewalk for Chris Christie (at least for now), and with New York's crime problem under control (removing much of the impetus for a Republican mayor), all eyes are on the Virginia gubernatorial race as the premier political contest in 2013. Republicans selected their political slate over the weekend at a convention, settling upon Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as their gubernatorial candidate, E.W. Jackson as their pick for lieutenant governor, and state Sen. Mark Obenshain as their choice for attorney general. Democrats will choose their slate in a primary on June 10.

For most of the year, I’d viewed the race as a sort of “irresistible force vs. immovable object” tossup. Both Cuccinelli and soon-to-be Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, who is unopposed in the primary, have issues that could normally prove fatal in a Virginia general election. Yet one of them has to win (as Jonathan Chait noted, it’s not the worst political choice ever, but it is arguably up there).

Until now, I’d probably have given the edge to Cuccinelli. But in light of developments at the state Republican convention, I’d probably put a thumb on the scale for McAuliffe at this point.

Before beginning, I want to point out a faulty piece of analysis that you’re likely to hear repeated ad nauseam over the next few months: that Virginia always elects governors from the party that doesn’t hold the White House. This is technically true, dating back to 1977, but it is a weak rule that is ripe to be broken.

For one thing, it doesn’t hold true at all before 1977 (although Gov. Mills Godwin, elected as a Republican in 1973, was a former Democratic governor, so perhaps that deserves an asterisk). We have to have some plausible explanation why it suddenly kicks in during the 1977 election, and I have none. Second, nine observations is a terribly small number on which to base a theory, especially since the elections basically followed the national mood in 1981, 1993, 2005 and 2009. As to the remaining five elections, the odds of throwing five heads or five tails in a row is one in 16, so I’m not terribly convinced that what we see isn’t just random chance.

Instead, I think it’s fair to say that, absent some major tilt in the national political environment, either party can win any given gubernatorial race in Virginia. Since we can’t know what the country’s mood will be in late 2013, I think it’s much more productive to look at this race the way I did in 2009, through the lens of the parties’ coalitions (the article I just linked to has a slightly different, more detailed look at some of the history that follows).

Virginia coalitions can best be thought of through the old rhyme: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” The first three components represent the traditional Republican coalition, especially through the early 1990s, while the last is, naturally, the Democrats’.

The “something old” is the original bedrock of the Republican Party of Virginia: The mountain areas in the southwestern portion of the state. These counties have more or less voted Republican since the party was founded, when the GOP embrace of the old Whig platform of internal improvements resonated with voters who had little use for slavery and who were dependent upon roads and canals for their livelihoods. (Some of the westernmost counties were organized by the United Mine Workers in the 1920s and have only recently returned to their Republican roots.)

The “something new” is urban Virginia. Remember, “urban Virginia” didn’t really exist until after World War II. In 1930, Fairfax County’s population was barely double what it had been in 1790. Likewise, Loudoun’s population as late as 1960 was only 5,500 residents higher than it had been at the time of the first census. Richmond proper didn’t eclipse 100,000 residents until the early 1900s; Newport News was a sleepy hamlet of 20,000 at the time, while Norfolk had about 50,000 residents at the turn of the century.

But you can see the impact that these emerging urban centers -- what were then being called the “New South” -- would have on Virginia elections pretty early on: Calvin Coolidge might have lost the state by 30 points in 1924, but he carried Arlington County. As Northern Virginia filled up with Northern transplants, who had little use for the rural, conservative Virginia Democratic Party, the face of state politics also began to change, and the small Republican Party of Virginia emerged as a powerful force. By 1952, Democratic Rep. Howard Smith, the powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee, had suffered a series of relatively close elections and had to beg legislative leaders to remove Fairfax and Arlington counties from his district. But for a last-minute flub, Republican Ted Dalton probably would have won the gubernatorial race in 1953.

The “something borrowed” and “something blue” are interrelated. Jim Crow laws in Virginia had particularly vicious impacts on voting patterns for blacks and poor whites. Virginians cast 265,000 ballots for president in 1900; only 130,000 did so in 1904. But America abolished the poll tax and passed the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s, and it utterly transformed Virginia politics; turnout nearly doubled from 1960 to 1968.

The newly enfranchised poor whites and African-Americans immediately made their impact felt in the Democratic Party, combining with long-suffering white liberals to establish the modern “blue” base. In 1966, liberal candidates defeated Sen. A. Willis Robertson (Pat Robertson’s father) in the Democratic primary, as well as Rep. Smith. In 1970, Sen. Harry Byrd Jr. decided that he could not win a Democratic primary, and ran for re-election as an independent. 

This resulted in a partial migration of old conservative Virginians toward the Republicans, especially in rural areas where the old Byrd political machine had been at its apogee. Until recently, these conservative voters were really only borrowed. They still preferred conservative Democrats at the local and state legislative levels, but could usually be counted on by Republicans at the state and federal levels.

When the “three-cornered stool” of the Virginia Republican Party has held together, it has been virtually unbeatable, as witnessed by the ticket’s romp in 2009 (when all three candidates won by double digits). So the burden has been on Democrats to steal a piece of it. But there are three reasons why they have been very successful on this front.

The first is that there are inherent contradictions within this coalition. In particular, the rural, conservative portion of the state tends not to like the more moderate candidates favored by the urban/suburban areas, and vice-versa. This first became an issue in 1973, when Republicans turned to former Democratic Gov. Godwin as their nominee, a move that appalled the old guard, including then-Gov. Linwood Holton, a Republican. During the 1980s, Democrats running on a conservative-to-moderate platform could steal back the rural areas.

Of late, national and state Republicans have tended to nominate candidates more geared toward rural areas. At this point, there is increasing risk that the borrowed portion of the coalition is the urban/suburban areas, though I don’t think we’re quite at that point yet.

The second is the Democrats’ candidates. Democrats have been remarkably adept at resisting their “id” since the early 1970s, and have tended to support moderate technocrats rather than liberal firebrands. This has assisted them in breaking off urban areas, especially Northern Virginia.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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