“Virginia is a purple state. With a tinge of blue.” - Bob Holsworth (Political Commentator)
Gone is the notion that Virginia’s solid red is set in stone. Over the past decade, Virginia’s rural towns have become increasingly (and staunchly) Republican while the number of conservative Democrats who were traditionally represented in these areas has waned. In urban areas, larger counties in the North (like Fairfax) are increasingly and predominantly blue. Suburban Virginia reflects a subsiding Republican majority. One look at counties like Fairfax and Henricho (a traditionally red county that has made an “about face”) and we see that Democrats are doing better. How is this explained? Well, Democrats appeal more to the new demographic realities of the state… Latinos, Asians, African American populations - and, yes, Virginia’s emerging American Muslim community.
Yet look at Congressional politics in Virginia and you see a distinct red. With 8 Republicans and 3 Democrats in the US House of Representatives and Virginia’s own General Assembly reflecting 67 Republicans to 33 Democrats in the House and 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats in the Senate, how do we explain the co-existence of red in legislative terms with blue as the statewide dynamic? Do or will these realities need to reconcile? And how does this affect Virginia’s American Muslim community?
Some would argue that Redistricting lies at the crux of this schizophrenic partisanship. There was much ado about Redistricting this legislative session with SJ284, SB824, SB840 - none of which passed the House. But would redistricting fixes necessarily lead to a more representative landscape? Democrats would argue that they absolutely would and there is no doubt there would be a changed electoral landscape. One need only look at the Supreme Court of Virginia’s judicial rulings in late 2014 and early 2015 regarding the unconstitutionality of racial redistricting in 12 House districts for its potential impact in the 2015 races. And these 2015 races will in turn determine Virginia’s impact on elections in 2016.
However, most Republican legislators would contend there is no need for fool-proofing against gerrymandering since redistricting will not change the tide entirely. For them, this legislative session was a success - as a less antagonistic affair with a swifter cessation than in the recent past - because a surplus State budget meant a smoother process for issues related to the Economy and Education. Indeed, this year’s budget helped lay the grounds for successful bipartisan cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. Bills were passed that essentially boosted salaries for state workers and teachers, reduced costs for college, allowed more welfare program funding and pumped more money into the treasury.
Yet combine a relatively good budgetary outcome and its legislative perks for proponents of a red Virginia with the divergent statewide election trends that reflect growing blue, and it remains to be seen whether Republicans can afford to risk remaining as complacent over time. Bipartisan cooperation could very well become less easy to achieve if budgetary issues creep into the state and if upcoming statewide elections produce pronounced changes in the tide from red to blue.
Virginia’s economic growth lagged behind the national average this year. Though enough to leave the treasury in better shape, with a slightly superior performance than previously projected,the Commonwealth’s economy is yet very much susceptible to the effects of federal budget cuts. Jobs and contracts in the area can be adversely impacted if the US government decides to significantly cut military, defense and government sector funds. Perhaps the biggest asset to the area is its human capital which is intellectually rich, diverse and highly qualified. But only the most skilled economic forecaster would know how the state would fare if contracting opportunities became less available even to such an elite pool of workers, leaving the onus on private enterprise as the alternative income generating source. Bipartisan deals in Richmond would be harder to achieve if the pot of money became a source of contention with the very real possibility of economic challenges associated with government cut backs.
Looking more closely at the makeup of the General Assembly, upcoming statewide elections will likely still reflect a predominantly Republican House of Delegates but have a more stark impact on the VA Senate. With its current 21-19 in favor of red, both parties will be fighting hard to invest in campaigns across the state this year so as to tilt the numbers. And this effort will carry further to the Presidential elections in 2016, where Virginia will likely be the swing state for Presidential nominees- an essential replay of 2012. At which time ad hoc policymaking and myopic dismissals of the realities of Virginia’s demographic dynamics may push red Virginia to finally consider shedding rigidity for adaptability, or risk a purple turning distinctly blue.
Republicans in the state of Virginia need to accept that they must cater to a growing number of diverse constituents and that outreach to these communities is not such a frightening concept, if they wish to remain relevant. They must also face the realities of Virginia’s push to address redistricting and gerrymandering. They have to consider that the outcome of both 2015 statewide and 2016 Presidential elections could affect the economy and makeup of Virginia’s legislature in a way that might make decision making much more contentious in Richmond going forward. They might also have to realize that extreme conservatism to the point of exclusionary politics, in which they alienate the area’s American Muslims, was not what our forefathers would have intended. In fact, not heeding the new demographic makeup of the state has been manifesting itself over the years and could lead to an irreparable erosion of overall support for conservative ideals in the Commonwealth. In which case, “purple with a tinge of blue” could very well turn much more blue than ever before.
1] Speech at Modern Republic dinner, April 14 2015.