Magazine article The American Prospect

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Magazine article The American Prospect

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Want to know how the Democrats will do in 2002--and whether President Bush will win re-election in 2004? For a reliable prediction, watch Virginia in the fall. The state's off-year elections have for the last three decades foreshadowed the political trends that shape American politics. This November's gubernatorial election will be a test of how solid the Republican South really is, and could provide a preview of the 2004 presidential contest. The race pits New Democrat Mark Warner against Republican Attorney General Mark Earley, a"compassionate conservative" One of the main issues will be whether Virginians have really benefited from the massive tax cut adopted by the last Republican administration. And the principal battleground for voter support will be the large swath of suburbia that stretches from northern Virginia down the coast to Norfolk and comprises about 60 percent of the electorate.

Virginia was once the capital of the Confederacy, and for almost 100 years its mainly whites-only electorate was dominated by very conservative Bourbon Democrats, epitomized by the late Senator Harry Byrd, Jr., and his father. But since the 1960s, influenced by the Voting Rights Act and by the growth of the suburbs around Washington, D.C., Virginia has increasingly become a microcosm of the American electorate. Its trends haven't just mirrored but have portended those in the country as a whole. In the 1970s, Virginia veered sharply Republican in a prelude to the Reagan landslide, and the GOP controlled the governor's office throughout the decade. (In Virginia, governors can serve only a single term of four years, so each election poses a new political test.) In 1976, Virginia was the only southern state to back Gerald Ford against Jimmy Carter. In 1978, Republican John Warner was elected to the Senate. And in November 1980, Republicans won nine of 10 House seats.

Republicans were aided in those years by Democratic defectors--white segregationists from southern Virginia who had backed the old Byrd machine along with coastal Tidewater Democrats who depended on military spending and were put off by the national party's opposition to their livelihood. But Republican ranks were also swelled by northern Virginia's suburbanites--many of them salaried professionals--who blamed the Democrats for stagflation, high taxes, and growing welfare expenditures. Reagan carried these voters by two to one in 1980. Much of the story of Virginia politics has revolved around the shifting allegiances of this growing group of voters.

In the 1980s, Virginia anticipated Clinton's 1992 victory by moving dramatically back toward the Democratic Party. The key individuals were former marine officer Charles Robb (who had married President Lyndon Johnson's daughter Lynda Bird Johnson) and Douglas Wilder, an African-American legislator from Richmond. In his successful campaign for governor in 1981 and for the Senate in 1988, Robb, with Wilder's support, created the model of the "New Democrat." His conservative demeanor (later belied by a sex scandal) and his military background insulated him against identification with counterculture and antiwar Democrats. Robb's fiscal conservatism and his focus on practical reform played well in the suburbs. And his support for civil rights and abortion rights won him backing among minorities and middle-class women. Wilder, who was elected lieutenant governor in 1985 and governor in 1989, served as an important ally. He was a militant civil rights supporter who could mobilize Virginia's blacks, but he was not a ready target for white conservatives because he was as conservative as Robb on fiscal and defense issues and was openly antagonistic toward Jesse Jackson's presidential aspirations.

The Democrats also benefited from divisions within the Republican Party created by the rise of the religious right. While Robb and Gerald Baliles, his Democratic successor as governor, appeared to be focused on the problems of education and suburban sprawl, the Republicans were battling over abortion and "creationism" (in 1985 their gubernatorial candidate favored the compulsory teaching of creationism in public schools). …

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