Virginia, population 8.1 million, is the state where the capital of the Confederacy was originally located. It is the state that tried to shut down all public schools rather than accept desegregation. It is the state where a holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was insultingly paired with homage to Robert E. Lee, the slave whipping Confederate commander. It is the state where, every day, I cannot avoid driving on Jefferson Davis Highway. Some members of the Virginia white social elite are like the aristocrats on their return from exile after the overthrow of the French Revolution, of whom Napoleon’s former Foreign Minister Talleyrand said, “They have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing.”
But in recent decades, social and demographic changes, as well as the victories of the Civil Rights movement, have been eroding Virginia’s reputation as a bulwark of reaction, and its voting patterns now make it a key “swing state.” Concentrations of progressive voters are found in Northern Virginia, with its Asian and Latin American immigrants and the large number of people from other regions of the country who come to work in government agencies in Richmond, the capital, and in the area around Norfolk, with its shipbuilding industry and related unions. None of these people, especially black Virginians and other minorities, have any reason to feel any reverence toward Jefferson Davis or other reactionary Southern icons.
In 1990, Virginia became the first state ever to elect an African American governor, Democrat Douglass Wilder. In 2008, not only did Virginia go for Obama, but it also elected three new Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
However, right after the victories of 2008, things began to go wrong for the Democrats. In 2009, the Republicans won all three state level executive offices: The governorship, the lieutenant governorship and the office of state attorney general. In 2010, the Republicans captured three U.S. House seats. And in 2011, the Republicans managed to capture effective control of the State Senate (there are now 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, but the Republican Lieutenant Governor, Bill Bolling, clearly intends to exercise his right to break ties). They already had a majority in the lower house. All of these victories for the Republicans can be related to a sharp drop off in turnout since the 2008 election in the key constituencies that won for the Democrats in 2008.
From the 2009 victory on, it became clear that there would be an aggressive push to impose a radically right-wing agenda by the Republicans. The new Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, was the first to file suit against President Obama’s health reform law. Cuccinelli has also attempted to intimidate a climate scholar formerly at the University of Virginia because of his work on global warming, and has supported efforts to deputize police to do immigration enforcement work.
The new power of the GOP in the General Assembly (Virginia’s state legislature) is already being flexed. Republicans in House and Senate have hit the ground running with a voter ID bill, a bill intended to reinforce Virginia’s existing “right to work” law, and numerous bills aimed at restricting reproductive rights.
In 2012, there are very important elections to the federal House and Senate. Although redistricting based on the 2010 census is not finished yet, and the Republicans do not hold their primaries until March 6, the outlines of some of the most important fights are beginning to emerge.
One of Virginia’s two Democratic senators, Jim Webb, has announced he will not run for re-election. The Republicans think they can pick up the seat, and thereby get a Senate majority.
The most likely candidates are Tim Kaine and George Allen. Kaine, who had been mayor of Richmond and then governor from 2006 to 2010, and chaired the Democratic National Committee until last year, is a well regarded, moderately progressive Democrat. Allen is a former governor and senator who is mostly known outside Virginia for the “macaca” moment, in which he used the term “macaca” against an Indian American Democratic campaign activist, and it turned out it is an insult meaning “female monkey” in Italian. He has a considerable amount of such baggage. However, he is a capable politician and should not be underestimated; he also does well in public opinion polls. Current polls show Kaine and Allen as neck and neck.Also running neck and neck are President Obama and Mitt Romney; Obama does much better against Gingrich.
It will be a difficult election. The energy sector, which is a strong presence in coal-mining Virginia, wants to develop uranium mining in the state also, to the horror of environmentalists. The League of Conservation Voters has been particularly critical of George Allen because of the massive financial support he has received from Koch Industries and other energy-sector behemoths. Although Virginia is in better shape in terms of unemployment than many other states, the Obama administration’s plans to reduce military spending will be used by the Republicans to stoke fears about job loss, as Virginia has a heavy presence of federal military installations. The Republicans are also likely to stir up their base on subjects like immigration, reproductive rights and gun ownership.