Virginia's executive mansion. Courtesy of Leonard Woody.
Virginia's executive mansion. Courtesy of Leonard Woody.

To quote the great philosopher George Jones, “Now the race is on.”

Not the 2024 presidential race — oh, that’s on, too, of course — but I’m referring more to the 2025 governor’s race.

“Stoney hints at running for governor,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently headlined. Actually, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney seemed to do more than just hint. “I think I am young enough to still serve the public and I am seriously considering my next step, and that would be taking a look at the governor’s race in 2025,” he told the paper. He also recently started a political action committee, and said he would use it to focus both on Richmond but also helping Democrats retain the state Senate and win back the House of Delegates this fall.

Stoney’s not alone. Axios recently published a list of others who are making moves that could turn into a run for governor: former Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, former Rep. Elaine Luria. Not on the list is Del. David Reid of Loudoun County, who has also been mentioned.

All those are Democrats. With Democrats out of power, they have a more wide-ranging set of options. The likely Republican candidates are presumed to be Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares.

Today I will confine my remarks to the Democrats, for reasons that will soon be clear. The two Republicans have already run — and won — in Southwest and Southside. And whoever the Republican nominee is in 2025 will win on this side of the state — and win big. Whether they win statewide is a different question, but it doesn’t take a political genius to read the electoral history in Southwest and Southside: Those parts of the state will go big for the Republican nominee in 2025, whoever it is.

To me, that makes the message for Democrats more important. A future Republican governor will be indebted to some degree to Southwest and Southside. A future Democratic governor won’t be. At one time, Southwest Virginia was considered a key part of a statewide Democratic coalition. Those days are long gone. A few relevant stats: In 1985, Democrat Gerald Baliles took 62.4% of the vote in Lee County. In 2000, Democrat Mark Warner took 53.3% there. By 2021, Democrat Terry McAuliffe took just 12.1% in the state’s westernmost county.

Maybe the party’s 2025 nominee improves upon that — or not. If they do, though, they won’t improve upon it by much, absent some sudden realignment.

There are two schools of thoughts among Democratic strategists. The dominant view is that rural voters aren’t worth the trouble, that they are too few in number and too hard to persuade (and that the things that might persuade them would turn off core Democratic voters elsewhere). These strategists won’t say this on the record, of course, but privately they feel they can win simply by running up the score in their best areas, meaning parts of the urban crescent. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not. In 2021, they were not. The minority point of view is that Democrats shouldn’t bet everything on maximizing turnout in their best areas, that they should hedge their bets and try to cut into Republican margins in rural Virginia. Democrats don’t want to win there, they just can’t get wiped out by margins of — checks notes — 87.6% to 12.1%. In a close election, a few thousand votes out of Southwest Virginia might make the difference.

Ultimately, though, this column isn’t about general election campaign strategy, it’s about what it might take to win a contested Democratic primary — and what might happen if that candidate ultimately wins office.

Some of these potential candidates are already paying attention to Southwest and Southside. Reid, who grew up in Rockbridge County and whom I called “rural Virginia’s unofficial delegate” in a column a year ago, has made visits through his role as chair of the obscure Manufacturing Development Commission. Stoney was in Roanoke and Blacksburg last week, the latter stop a campaign event for Lily Franklin, a Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates. To be fair, neither Luria nor Spanberger has had any reason to pay attention to anything on this side of the state. Filler-Corn, though, had a chance when she was Speaker of the House. During that time, I was editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times; we repeatedly invited her to meet with us, including once when we knew she was going to be in Blacksburg. She never replied. The only time we heard from her was the day after she ordered Confederate busts removed from the Old House Chamber. I understand that it was a moment she was proud of, but I’d gently suggest that Confederate memorabilia in Richmond was not the most pressing issue confronting Southwest Virginia.

So if we have Democratic candidates who are essentially strangers to this side of the state, what would we like them to know about us? Republicans should be interested in this question, too, because one of them might win, and when that day comes, it would be useful if that future Democratic governor didn’t regard the western part of the state the same way that pre-Columbian mariners regarded the western seas at the edge of the map: “There be dragons.”

Here’s what I think those candidates should know.

1. We feel left out of the statewide conversation.

Democrats like to talk a lot about reaching out to marginalized voices, and I realize that rural voters who vote 80% Republican aren’t the marginalized voices they’re thinking about. Still, the reality is that Southwest and Southside feel left out. It wasn’t always like that. At one time, decades ago, Southside was the state’s industrial powerhouse. And the mayor of Newport News once marveled that in 1905 “the great Southwest was the big bad wolf of whom the other sections of the state, from a political and economic stand-point, stood in awe.” We feel a sense of economic displacement that other parts of the state don’t share. Democrats will simply not connect with much of Southwest and Southside on many cultural issues and we all know exactly which ones they are. If Democrats are to find any common ground with this part of Virginia — either as candidates or potentially as governor — it will be around economic issues. More specifically, some economic issues, specifically the need to create more and better-paying jobs.

2. Parts of the Democratic message seem tone-deaf in rural Virginia.

I want to say this gently, and carefully, because I’m not advising either party to change their core beliefs. However, Democrats have become so used to running in the urban crescent that they forget how out-of-place they sound in much of rural Virginia. I won’t even bring up guns. Let’s go with a more prosaic example: Democrats routinely call for paying teachers better. I’m all for that and not simply because I come from a family of teachers.

However, here’s the political reality: In Loudoun County, the average teacher salary is $79,671, according to the Virginia Department of Education. You may think that’s high, you may think that’s low, but what matters is that in Loudoun County, that’s just a little more than half the median household income of $153,530.

Now let’s look at Lee County. The average annual teacher salary there is $54,227, the state says. Should Lee County teachers be paid more? Sure. But … in Lee County, the median household income is $40,833.

In Loudoun County, teachers are nowhere close to being the highest-paid workers in the county. In Lee County, though, they are. They might still be underpaid for what they are called upon to do, but the social dynamics are quite different. I don’t know what voters in the urban crescent hear when Democrats talk about higher teacher salaries, but what many rural voters hear is Democrats wanting to raise the pay of professionals who are already better paid and better educated than most of their neighbors — and they don’t see how that translates into better education. By contrast, many Democrats (now-U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, was a notable exception) don’t talk about what seems the real school issue in many rural localities: how to pay to fix up old school buildings. Somehow Republicans (well, some Republicans, led by Deputy House Majority Leader Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County) have taken the lead on that issue. Could it be because Northern Virginia has shiny new school buildings so this isn’t something legislators hear about?

Privilege” is a word that gets bandied about a lot these days, as in “check your privilege.” That’s usually used in a racial context, but in a more general political context, Democrats these days come off in rural Virginia as the party of privilege — they’re the ones who represent the wealthiest part of the state. Many Democrats certainly don’t seem themselves that way at all, and I’m not here to argue whether they are or not, but that is how they are often perceived in much of rural Virginia. Any Democrat who wants to make inroads in rural Virginia will need to navigate that.

3. Don’t treat us superficially.

Politicians shouldn’t treat anyone superficially, of course, but I’ve seen plenty of pols from both parties come out here and read from a script. I’ve seen Republican candidates, for instance, come to Roanoke and profess their love of coal, as if they think that matters here. Yes, some coal moves through Roanoke, and yes, there are some Roanoke Valley businesses that are tied to the coal industry, but the Roanoke Valley itself doesn’t identify with coal country. Democrats are in no danger of embracing coal, but I cite that example to show how easy it is for statewide candidates to fall into the trap of stereotypes and generalities. Most of Southwest Virginia has nothing to do with coal; even coal country these days doesn’t have much to do with coal. So don’t come out here and talk generally about “jobs,” for instance. We’ve heard all that before. Give us some reason to believe you really know us and understand us in some deeper way than “if it’s Tuesday, I must be in Bristol so I can check off the box of being here.” Of course, that might involve something that’s impractical. Namely:

4. Spend time out here.

This may be the most controversial piece of advice of all. Time is the most precious commodity we all have. Any time that a Democratic candidate spends in Franklin County, which cast 23,848 votes (about three-quarters of them Republican) in 2021, is time that candidate is not spending Fairfax County, which cast 441,262 votes (about two-thirds of them Democratic). And yet investing time in rural Virginia may be required. Yes, that’s a risky proposition: A Democratic candidate could invest plenty of time in rural Virginia and still not make any headway. The return on investment may be low to nonexistent — unless it’s a close election and a handful of votes might make a difference. Of course, if it’s a close election, that Democratic candidate might be advised to spend less time in a Republican part of the state and more time in a Democratic one. I do not pretend to be a strategist. I’m just giving advice to candidates who don’t know this part of Virginia very well on what they need to know. Whether they choose to accept that advice is up to them. It really depends on how those Democratic candidates feel about the last Democratic candidate for governor polling 12.1% in a county that two decades before had been majority Democratic. If they are concerned about that, they’ll do something about it. They just may not like what they have to do.  

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