The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

Four observations about Virginia politics of late:

  1. The Virginia Supreme Court delivered a smackdown to Republicans. Now that the redistricting commission has failed to produce maps, the task falls to the the Virginia Supreme Court. Under the law, each party gets to nominate three “special masters” to assist the court with the actual work; the court picks one from each party’s list. Except on Friday the court rejected all three Republican nominees on the grounds that they were too partisan; the court also rejected one Democratic nominee because apparently he wasn’t keen on working with somebody else – and the law does look more favorably on those who can play well with others. The court noted that the special masters serve in a “quasi-judicial capacity” and therefore “must be neutral and must not act as advocates or representatives of any political party.” The irony here is that it was always Democrats who were more wary of having Virginia’s conservative-leaning Supreme Court be the final arbiter. Now, in its first big ruling, the court has delivered a rebuke to Republicans. The justices seem to be sending a clear signal here – they are in charge of the process now and they’re not going to tolerate any partisan nonsense.

This is actually the second court ruling that has come down on the side of Democrats. Earlier this fall, the court rejected a legal challenge – mounted by state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, among others – over where prison inmates are counted. Republicans wanted them counted where they are imprisoned, which would bump up the population of rural counties such as Wise County, home to the Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons. Democrats wanted inmates counted as residents of the communities they came from. Earlier this year, the Democratic General Assembly passed a law mandating the latter. The court let that law stand. That decision might have been made on legal grounds, not political ones, but the fact remains, so far Democrats are 2-0 and Republicans are 0-2 before a court where both sides thought Republicans would carry the day. For Republicans who thought a gridlock at the commission stage wasn’t a bad outcome because they’d surely get their way before the court, this falls into the “be careful what you wish for” category.

  1. National commentators are showing exactly why the national media is so distrusted. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office in 12 years has been reduced to a referendum over critical race theory and, depending on who’s doing the telling, proof that white voters in Virginia are racist. Wajahat Ali, a columnist for The Daily Beast, famously (or infamously) wrote about “these Virginia Karens” who were voting as “powerful handmaidens of white supremacy.” The Chicago Sun-Times was only slightly less restrained when its singled out Prince Edward County to tie that county’s Massive Resistance past to this year’s election. “The massive resistance continues,” wrote Neil Steinberg. 

    Oh please. 

Yes, critical race theory did play a role in the campaign – far too big a role for something that doesn’t seem to actually exist in Virginia schools. Youngkin’s pledge to ban the teaching of something that’s not being taught is the political equivalent of a carnival trick. But there are lots of other reasons why Youngkin won and they have nothing to do with race. Maybe, just maybe, a lot of Virginia parents were fed up with virtual schooling and liked Youngkin’s vow to have five days of in-person learning a week. (Much has been made about female voters swinging to Youngkin; is there any surprise why? Who had to quit work and stay home with the kids when they were at virtual school?) 

Maybe, just maybe, some Virginians were outraged by the news about a sexual assault in a restroom at a Loudoun County high school, and what seemed to some to be the administration’s lackadaisical response. (The assailant who was found guilty less than a week before the election was white, so there was no racial dimension to that. Local angle: State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, represented the girl’s family).

Maybe, just maybe, some Virginians thought their taxes were too high and liked Youngkin’s pledge to do away with the tax on groceries – an issue that decades ago was a Democratic issue championed by the liberal populist Henry Howell. 

Maybe, just maybe, some Virginians didn’t like that the parole board seemed to be turning loose so many convicted criminals. There’s undoubtedly a racial dimension in how some people view crime, but one of the most talked-about cases involved a white prisoner from Craig County who had been convicted of 56 felonies – and promptly used his release to embark on a new crime spree that only ended when a customer at a convenience store in Pulaski County intervened during an armed robbery and chased down the perp. Virginia didn’t just give that guy a second chance, it gave him a 57th chance. That’s the case that Jason Miyares used as his main talking point on parole in his campaign for attorney general.

Or maybe, just maybe, Youngkin won because Democrats didn’t do as good a job as Republicans did in turning out their voters. Turnout was up dramatically in many rural areas – up 41% in Russell County from four years ago – but turnout in some key Democratic strongholds, such as Petersburg, stayed the same and actually declined in Charlottesville and Portsmouth. If those communities had voted at the same rate that Republican communities had, we’d be talking today about Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe. Maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t Republican voters but Democratic non-voters?

Whatever the reason, the point is Virginia’s election was a lot more complicated than the national commentators want to make it sound.

  1. Did the delay in the infrastructure bill cost Democrats the election? U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said it did. Others think that’s absurd. You can answer that question ideologically – some liberals might say yes, conservatives would say no – or you can answer it mathematically. Of the two options, I always prefer the latter. Here’s the math: The election was close. Even with a dramatically large turnout in rural areas, and gains among suburban voters who had been lost to Democrats during the Donald Trump years, Youngkin still won by just 63,503 votes – 1.93%. If Congress has passed the infrastructure bill before the election, I don’t see that persuading 31,752 Youngkin voters to switch to McAuliffe. I don’t see it persuading any Youngkin voters to switch to McAuliffe. The question is whether an early passage of the infrastructure bill would have persuaded 63,504 voters who stayed home to come out and vote for McAuliffe. That seems entirely possible. Let’s look more closely at the numbers.

    McAuliffe polled more votes than any other Democratic candidate for governor in history; he just had the misfortune of running in a year when the Republican candidate generated more votes than anybody ever had in a governor’s race. Still, Democrats could have done a lot better; they just didn’t. As I noted earlier, turnout in Charlottesville and Portsmouth was down – from 52% to 41% in the former, down from 46% to 44% in the latter. Petersburg and Williamsburg saw turnout stay exactly the same rate as four years ago – 38% in the former, 49% in the latter. In Richmond, turnout barely budged – from 49% to 50%. To say that these are strongly Democratic localities is to understand their partisan tilt. The Petersburg voters who showed up voted nearly 85% for McAuliffe. In Charlottesville, nearly 83%. Portsmouth seems practically bipartisan by voting 65% for McAuliffe. The point is, there were a lot more Democratic votes available; they just weren’t cast. If Democrats had been able to spend the fall going around the state talking up all the good things in the infrastructure bill, would that have inspired 63,504 voters who obviously weren’t inspired otherwise? We’ll never know, but the numbers are so close that it sure seems plausible. Instead, McAuliffe spent much of the fall shouting “Trump! Trump!” when that might have had the effect of ginning up Republican turnout in some places. On the other hand, maybe the infrastructure still wouldn’t have been enough to bring out 63,504 more Democratic voters. After all, the infrastructure bill is federal legislation; it has nothing to do with the governance of Virginia over the next four years (although the next governor will get to administer some of that funding and claim credit for every new mile of broadband fiber whether he deserves it or not). Ultimately, we just don’t know, but it’s worth Democrats in Washington taking some time to ponder their inability to get things done more quickly.
  2. What do Democrats have to do to win more votes in rural areas? Lately it seems we hear that question after every election, especially the ones Democrats lose. If Hillary Clinton had run just a little bit better with rural voters in Florida and North Carolina in 2016, she’d have carried those states. Now we hear that question again as a result of this year’s Virginia election. The Christian Science Monitor is among the national publications that have raised this question; one of their reporters went to Pulaski County for the story “Virginia’s wake-up call: Democrats ignore rural voters at their peril.” The Monitor made this point: “It’s the unexpectedly large rural turnout that has many Democratic strategists most worried ahead of next year’s midterm elections, when the party will be defending its razor-thin congressional majorities. It’s not that Democrats need to win in rural America to win overall, they note. But they can’t lose by those kinds of margins and remain competitive.”

There is some nuance to the super-charged percentages that Republicans ran up in rural Virginia. In some places, Democrats actually won more votes than they did in 2017; it’s just that Republicans won so many more that their percentage increased. (It’s a math thing.) But in other places, particularly in much of Southwest, the raw Democratic vote collapsed, which drove the Republican percentages higher still.

For instance, in Pittsylvania County, the Democratic vote rose from 5,759 in 2017 to 6,319 this year. But the Republican vote rose faster, from 13,701 to 19,543 – a change from 70% Republican to 75.31% Republican.

However, in Pulaski County, where the Monitor visited, the Democratic vote dropped from 3,533 to 3,277.

The Democratic drop-off was more pronounced farther west. In Lee County, it fell from 1,304 to 882.

Just 20 years ago, the Democratic candidate for governor (Mark Warner) polled 2,923 votes in Lee and 5,109 in Pulaski, carrying them and lots of other counties in Southwest.

What can turn that around? Honestly, I’m not sure anything can. Democrats understand they don’t need to win those localities; they just need to run better, but I see no prospects for that in the current political environment. The candidates who win Democratic nominations don’t connect well to rural communities culturally and even when they might, the issues they’re running on don’t. There are some Democratic issues that perhaps rural voters ought to be interested in – free community college, for instance – but Democrats have a hard time getting a hearing because their brand is basically poison in rural communities right now. I was talking this weekend with a conservative voter in the Shenandoah Valley about the election. He noted that Harrisonburg had gone Democratic because, in his words, Harrisonburg is full of “liberal weirdos.” Not just liberals, but liberal weirdos and the way he said it made it seem that he considered those two words interchangeable. This is where we’ve come to as a country: We’re so polarized that those on the other side aren’t simply people who have a different opinion about the role of government in society, they are weird, strange, foreign, alien — unrecognizable. That is not good for our civic health; it’s also not good for Democratic prospects with rural voters (and let’s be fair, a lot on the left see some Republicans the same way).

How interested are Democrats in really changing those perceptions in rural America? It doesn’t look like some of them are. Look at all the grief that so-called “progressives” are giving Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, for not being fully supportive of their agenda. Do they think they could win an election in West Virginia? If a Democrat’s going to win there, it’s going to be someone like Manchin – although sometimes the left seems like they’d be happier if Manchin were gone and a Republican were in his place. Democrats like to talk about diversity when it comes to ethnicity and whatnot, but they’re not so keen on ideological diversity within their own ranks. After the election, I received an email from one liberal activist with the subject line “rural voters continue to poop in their own nests.” I don’t know what Democrats can do to win back even a few rural voters but I’m pretty sure that telling them they’re voting against their own interests – in effect, telling them they’re stupid – isn’t it.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.