Democratic Dominion: The Decline and Fall of the Virginia Republican Party

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FORMER CHAIRMAN of the Virginia Republican Party Patrick McSweeney says he "knew [his] party had a long-term problem when [he] watched Mark Warner on 'Meet the Press'" in 2004. The Democratic governor was being questioned on his proposed $2 billion tax increase, one that would make up for budget shortfalls left by his Republican predecessor, Jim Gilmore. McSweeney noted that normally "this would be a great opportunity for Republicans" to paint Warner as a tax-and-spend liberal. But Virginia's Senate Republicans had squandered that chance when they proposed their own solution--a $3.7 billion tax increase, nearly double Warner's. The Democratic governor turned to Tim Russert and said, "Heck, we've got the Republican Senate now. I'm the conservative alternative."

It was a line that Warner would use over and over throughout the state, and one that made McSweeney boil. "We did it to ourselves," he says ruefully.

What Republicans did was forfeit all their advantages in the Old Dominion. Republican presidential candidates have won Virginia in every presidential election for four decades. After the realignment of the 1990s, Republicans handily built majority after majority in both houses of the Virginia General Assembly. And just a decade ago, Republicans occupied the top three statewide offices, the first united administration in Virginia in living memory. Even Democratic congressman Virgil Goode found it advantageous to switch to the GOP as late as 2003.

But all that has changed. Mark Warner was succeeded by his Democratic lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine. In 2006, Jim Webb unseated incumbent Republican senator George Allen. And now, in the race for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican John Warner, Mark Warner is leading Jim Gilmore by a stunning 28 points. John McCain's lead in the state has evaporated. On Intrade, a futures market for political outcomes, an Obama victory in Virginia commands 81 percent, compared to just 18 for McCain. The maverick may distinguish himself as the first Republican presidential candidate to lose Virginia since Barry Goldwater. How did Republicans lose so much so quickly in Virginia?

There are well-rehearsed demographic reasons for Republican decline. Northern Virginia has seen an influx of transplants from blue states in the last 15 years. The subsequent suburban and exurban development in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties precipitated even greater demographic change. In 2000, Hispanics made up just 9 percent of the population of Prince William County. By 2005, nearly one in five residents there was Hispanic. This doubling of the Hispanic population during the first half of this decade was reflected throughout the region.

But conservatives can still win statewide elections, even in the transformed north. Mark Tate, a former mayor of Middleburg and a longtime Republican activist, admits that in this region, sustained anti-government rhetoric is a hard sell when so many residents are employed by the federal government. "Just look at where they work," Tate laughs. But, he says, "Republicans up here are issue voters. Some rally around the life issue, some on gun issues, others on immigration, and increasingly we're seeing Real ID folks." Electoral results seem to prove Tate's theory that social-issues voters can give Republicans victory.

George Allen's loss to Jim Webb is instructive. Republicans in Virginia had timed an anti-gay-marriage amendment to coincide with Allen's re-election campaign. Bob Marshall, a Republican state delegate, had written the bill hoping to elevate an issue he cared about while helping his party. But according to Marshall, "Allen did nothing with it. He didn't link himself to it at all ... because Republican consultants who were running his campaign are so afraid of the social issues." Allen lost by less than 10,000 votes. Despite its lowered profile, the anti-gay-marriage amendment received almost 160,000 votes more than Webb. …