Magazine article The American Prospect

New Dominion: How Soon Will Changing Demographics Swamp Old Virginia's Republicans?

Magazine article The American Prospect

New Dominion: How Soon Will Changing Demographics Swamp Old Virginia's Republicans?

Article excerpt

By the summer of 1864, Confederate armies were hitting the limits of their strength: short on men, short on supplies, and losing ground in key theaters of the war. A reinvigorated Army of the Potomac, led by Ulysses S. Grant, had inflicted heavy casualties throughout the spring, pushing closer to the Confederate capital of Richmond. To regain the initiative, Robert E. Lee directed Lieutenant General Jubal Early to assault the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia, clear it of Union troops, then move on to Maryland and force Grant to defend Washington, D.C. The plan worked, but the fundamentals of the war hadn't changed. The Confederacy was still weak, and Grant still had more men, more supplies, and a talented corps of experienced generals. At most, Lee had managed to delay the inevitable.

Today's political situation in Virginia resembles those Civil War dynamics from 1864. Barack Obama's landmark victory in 2008 made him the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, establishing Virginia as one of the South's new battlegrounds. Democrats' long-term prospects in the state are bright, with population trends pointing to a lasting progressive majority, but Virginia Republicans won't cede their turf without a determined fight. The GOP countered Obama's 2008 win by dominating the state's off-year elections in 2009, electing conservative Bob McDonnell as governor and picking up seats in the assembly. This year, on the heels of another decisive Obama victory in 2012, Republicans hope to again signal that Democrats have not yet won the war.

Virginia's governor's race is the South's only marquee election in 2013, pitting Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a champion of "old Virginia," against former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe, a New York native and Washington insider who symbolizes "new Virginia." In his three years as attorney general, Cuccinelli has made himself the face of right-wing revanchism. He's opposed to abortion in all cases including rape and incest, gun control, new taxes (even to pay for road improvements), and environmental regulations. His office has filed suit against climate scientists for allegedly falsifying data, and his lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act was one of the first in the nation to attack the law. Virginia's business community wants little to do with Cuccinelli; he personifies the far-right wing of the Republican Party.

McAuliffe counters Cuccinelli's boundless extremism with boundless opportunism. Virginia has been his home base for a long career as a mega-fundraiser for the Democratic Party--the Clintons in particular. He ran for the gubernatorial nomination four years ago but came in a poor third despite spending a small fortune. McAuliffe would have struggled to win the nomination this time if anyone had contested it. Aside from his perpetually sunny salesman's personality, his primary virtue as a candidate, if you can consider it a virtue, is his vast network of moneyed Democratic elites.

If McAuliffe wins, it will show that the Democrats' demographic advantages have become so entrenched that they can overcome even a weak candidate. Virginia's growing diversity made Obama's four-point victories in 2008 and 2012 possible; he carried only 39 percent and 37 percent of whites. …

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