By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
The Quake of 2012
We had a big earthquake in Virginia last November. No, not the famous one about a year earlier that almost swamped poor Louisa County and rattled walls all the way to Washington, D.C. This one was political not seismic and it sent Barack Obama back into the White House for round two of a historic presidency. Once a reliably Red State, the Oldest of American Dominions and former Capitol of the Confederacy hadn’t voted for a Democratic candidate for President since ol’ “Put a Missile in the Kremlin Bathroom” Barry Goldwater scared his way out of the 1964 election to molasses-mouthed Texan, LBJ. 2008 seemed to break the trend, but the close election was explained away by Virginia Republicans as a sort of a once in a lifetime reaction to the nation’s first viable African-American presidential candidate and some incredibly magnificent missteps by John McCain. Read that as picking Sarah Palin and the senator’s disjointed response to the fiscal crisis.
By 2009, there were some clarions sounding the alarm like Bobby Jindal and Tim Pawlenty, who were calling for the GOP to at least meet a few Hispanic voters and to take the Family Research Council off of speed dial. But the midterm elections of 2010 insured those trumpets would not be answered and the Virginia GOP, lead by locally unpopular House Majority leader, Eric Cantor (44% unfavorable and 27% favorable), sailed a true course right to Mitt Romney, who enjoyed the unflagging support of Virginia’s popular governor, Bob McDonnell. Once considered a potential vice-presidential candidate, McDonnell, took an incredible pratfall by first supporting then opposing Virginia’s ill-conceived valentine to the religious right, the pre-abortion “transvaginal ultrasound” bill. Criticized as “state mandated rape,” the bill was eventually watered down to keep any chance of a McDonnell candidacy intact, but the first shots of the Republican “War on Women” had been fired at Virginia’s Capitol and the rout was on. There would be other battles in far-off places like Missouri, where Todd Akin educated the faithful about “legitimate rape,” and pastoral Indiana, where GOP candidate, Richard Mourdock, would explain that whatever the horror, God certainly “intends” rape to propagate the species. But here in Richmond, hard by the Hollywood-like sets for Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln and everywhere else from Virginia’s coastal areas through plains and into the Piedmont and even into the megalopolis that is Northern Virginia, female attitudes (along with their significant others) were quietly forming and they were decidedly anti-GOP.
There was one area of the Commonwealth though that resisted the wave of anti-Republican sentiment. From Winchester to Bristol, this long slice of Virginia’s picturesque topography with idyllic valleys and rolling mountains remained deeply red and staunchly conservative. White, religious, rural, and living vestiges of the Byrd political machine, these Democrats-turned-Republicans were loath to accept the consequences of the demographic and economic changes in Virginia, though that too might be changing as corporate takeovers of family farms and businesses are making the rural residents think twice about their allegiance to conservative principles.
In short, when tone-deaf Virginia Republicans surveyed the landscape before the 2012 election, they saw what they believed was a Commonwealth little changed from the Red politics that had defined it since Robert E. Lee turned down Abraham Lincoln’s commission to lead the Union forces in 1861. However, there were tremors that most everyone else not enjoying the gentlemanly Nassau bets at the Country Club of Virginia could feel.
Demographics As Destiny
In the years since 2000, Virginia’s population has skyrocketed and changed. Here’s a graphic representation:
In case you’re wondering, where you see blue think rural and where you see dark pink to reddish brown think urban/suburban. Virginia now ranks seventh nationally in population growth. And the largest growth segment of Virginia’s population? The population of Hispanic Virginians has more than tripled in 16 years! Asians are the second fastest growing racial segment in Virginia with a 38.5% increase since 2000. More importantly according to the 2010 census, scarcely 30% of state’s population is over 50. Young, urban, and diverse seems to define Virginia.
Demographer Qian Cai of the University of Virginia, found that:
Virginia’s population continues to concentrate in three large metropolitan statistical areas: Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads. These three areas combined are home to 70 percent of the state’s population and accounted for 82 percent of the state’s total population growth. Northern Virginia alone composed more than half of the state’s growth. Three of its counties (Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William), fueled by high birth rates and large net in-migration, generated 40 percent of the state population growth.
The change in demographic composition signaled a change in voting patterns especially in the densely populated, affluent suburban counties of the Commonwealth. Here’ s a bar graph showing Virginia voting trends in national elections for those counties (the first three surround Washington, DC, and the latter two surround Richmond):
Even reliably conservative Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, showed dramatic increases in support for Democratic candidates in the years since 1996. The rumblings were getting louder but none from the Grand Old Party could feel ‘em. Virginia Republicans were firmly convinced that Obama was a “one-termer” and that venerable old George Allen, now having finally lived down his 2006 “macaca moment,” would retake his rightful place in the U.S. Senate by vanquishing popular, but Obama supporting, former governor, Tim Kaine. They were wrong.
Reality set in about 11:10 p.m. on November 6, 2012, and Virginia Republicans were beginning to get an inkling that things just might have changed for them.
The Districts of Virginia
Politically speaking, Virginia has 11 Congressional districts. Gerrymandered by Republican legislatures and whipped back into line by the anti-discriminatory Voting Rights Act of 1965, the map is a tangled mess by anyone’s estimation:
The state’s congressional delegation to the House of Representatives has just two Democratic to nine Republicans members. The reason for the lopsidedness of the delegation even in the face of near split demographics is the Commonwealth’s redistricting battles. Seeking to ensure as many safe Republican seats as possible, Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature divided rural Virginia in most anyway possible and confined urban areas like Richmond and Northern Virginia into tightly bound districts of almost equal number. The net effect is to encapsulate Democratic voters who are mostly young, diverse, and urban and to expand rural districts that are mostly white and conservative. Thus Virginia divides her population more of less equally in rural versus urban/suburban districts equalizing their clout. This situation exists despite the great disparity in population numbers between urban/suburban (72%) and rural (28%) segments of the population.
How To Blunt An Earthquake Using Martin Luther King, Jr.
All this fascinating political science brings us to Martin Luther King Day of 2013. Once known in the Commonwealth as Lee-Jackson-King Day for the two civil war generals and the civil rights pioneer, the good gentlemen and gentle-ladies of the Virginia legislature granted Dr. King “separate but equal” recognition from his more militaristic and slave-minded compatriots by moving Lee-Jackson Day to the Friday before his holiday. No irony there, I’m sure.
As the fates would have it, Martin Luther King Day 2013 was also Inauguration Day #2 for President Barack Obama. One of the invited guests was 79-year-old state senator Henry Marsh. Mr. Marsh is a distinguished civil rights lawyer who, along with his law partners Oliver Hill and Samuel Tucker, were instrumental in diffusing Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” strategy to combat court-ordered school desegregation.
One would think the hoary gentlemen and ladies of the Virginia Senate would welcome the invitation of one of their own to sit at the platform with the soon-to-be-sworn-in first African-American president whose existence was made more likely by the monumental work of Senator Marsh and his law partners. They may have welcomed it, but for some it was not for the reasons one would think. For you see, the Virginia Senate is evenly split among Republicans and Democrats among the forty state senatorial districts. Marsh’s absence presented a grand opportunity to knock some dust off an old Republican plan to get by fiat what they did not (and likely could not) achieve by popular election. In the vernacular of this football season, they moved the goal posts.
In Marsh’s absence, Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan proposed then immediately rammed through on a 20-19 party-line vote a redistricting proposal that would revise the districts created under the 2011 map and would take effect before the next state Senate elections in Virginia. Th redrawn district lines maximize the number of safe GOP seats and leave western county Democrats like Creigh Deeds vulnerable to Republican challengers. Watkins defended the runaway train like legislative process saying it would create another black majority senate district. What he didn’t say was that it would create even more Republican dominated districts in a state turning purple much too fast for Republican sensibilities.
To his credit, Governor McDonnell has expressed skepticism about the vote and said he will examine it carefully if it passes muster in the House of Delegates where stiff opposition is expected even though it is dominated by Republicans. “The Governor was very surprised to learn that a redistricting bill would be voted on by the Senate today,” Tucker Martin, a spokesperson for McDonnell, told TPM. “He has not seen this legislation. If the bill gets to his desk he will review it in great detail at that time as he did with prior redistricting legislation.”
The New Southern Strategy
The fight over redistricting is just a microcosm of new Republican efforts to meet the challenges of the new demographic reality. Bills in at least six states seek to change the way these states vote in presidential elections. Modeled after law in Nebraska and Maine, the legislation would allocate electoral votes by Congressional district. Thus the winner of the votes in a gerrymandered Virginia district would garner that vote instead of the current system where all of Virginia’s electoral votes go to the winner of the state as a whole. Under Virginia Republican state Sen. Charlie Carrico’s proposal, the 2012 election would have had Virginia going Romney’s way by a vote of 9-4 instead of the 13-0 electoral rout for Obama.
Two key Republican senators have come out against the Carrico bill along with Governor McDonnell who says the old system works just fine. But for Republicans seeing the rising tide of demographic despair is the proposal really dead? On a national level, newly re-elected RNC chair Reince Priebus has declared his support for splitting up the electoral vote in blue-leaning swing states, including his home state of Wisconsin. GOP strategist Jodan Gehrke and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell are raising money for a campaign to promote Virginia-style bills around the country. Thus the idea is far from dead.
Is the GOP just utilizing the system for its own survival or is there a more sinister intent afoot? Seeing its base implode, will the GOP reach out to other segments of the population like young people and Hispanics or will it retrench and play backroom political games to further its cause?
I’d recommend the reaching out plan, because if they take the latter course it looks to be more shaky ground ahead. What do you think?
Sources: See blue underlined links throughout; TPM
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
UPDATE (1/29/2013): Today in Richmond, Delegate Carrico’s bill to alter the electoral vote calculation failed through a bipartisan 11-4 vote from the Senate Privileges and Elections committee. Feels good to be a Virginian today — democracy at least for the time being. Now we get to deal with Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, (R-Harrisonburg), and his bill that would call for photo identification to be presented at the polls thus effectively disenfranchising many poor and elderly who don’t own or use automobiles. Any guess which race is most affected? They really never quit do they?