Virginia: Democrats inch forward but it’s still close

Virginia, with its 8 million inhabitants, is seen as a key swing state for the elections. Recent polls show Obama and the Democrats advancing, but nobody is counting on this.  The state is crucial both for its 13 electoral votes and because the outcome of the Senate race could determine whether the Democrats retain control of the Senate or lose it.

Virginia went for Obama in 2008, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate won the state since 1964.  This year, Democratic Senator Jim Webb has decided not to run for re-election. His seat is being contested for the Democrats by Tim Kaine, who was mayor of the capitol, Richmond, from 1998 to 2001, governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010 and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2011. He is considered a moderate to liberal Democrat.

The Republican candidate is George Allen, who was governor from 1994 to 1998 and Senator from 2001 to 2007.  He is considered to be a hard line right winger, known for abolishing parole in the Virginia criminal justice system, defending the use of the Confederate flag and opposing the Martin Luther King holiday. He lost to Webb in 2006 partly because he was caught out making a racist comment to a Democratic activist of South Asian origin. Once the interest of the press was captured by that incident, other incidents in Allen’s past came to the surface that suggested a history of racism.

But Allen is a powerful campaigner, and is not to be underestimated. Thanks to the Citizens’ United Supreme Court decision, wealthy corporate donors have been flooding Virginia with money, much of which is being spent on slick, mendacious anti-Kaine attack ads.

The issues in Virginia are similar to those in many other states. Allen has fulminated against “Obamacare” (though he says he may keep some parts of it) and accuses Kaine of being a typical tax and spend liberal. Kaine points to his previous record as mayor and governor, and accuses Allen of being divisive and neglecting the needs of the majority.

Northern Virginia, dominated by the suburbs and exurbs of Washington D.C., is the most prosperous of Virginia’s regions.  Employment opportunities are provided by the many institutions of the federal government and related economic sectors. Northern Virginia also is ethnically and culturally heterogeneous, with large Latino, African-American and Asian populations. The Latino population of Virginia has doubled since 2000, and is mostly concentrated in the North. This area is expected to support the Democrats.

The Tidewater area of Southeastern Virginia features ports, U.S. Naval facilities and shipbuilding, all of which are major sources of employment. There are major African-American and Asian populations in places such as Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News and Portsmouth. This area along with the state capital, Richmond and its environs has been another stronghold of the Democratic Party. However, there is some worry that impending cuts in the military budget under “sequestration” will impact the job picture in this area.

Virginia as a whole has a relatively low level of unemployment, around 5.6 percent of the workforce, and is comparatively wealthy overall. Although the Republicans claim that this is because Virginia is a “right to work” state which also has an extremely low unionization level (about 4.6 percent of employed Virginians are in a union) a closer examination shows that government institutions and activities in Northern Virginia especially, are the major reason that joblessness is relatively low. Also, the wealth is not spread evenly, of course.

In rural and/or mountain areas, for example in the Appalachian chain in the West, the population is much more uniformly white. Rural and urban poverty is endemic, due to the decline of mining, agriculture and manufacturing. In spite of the working class roots and the economic deprivation, this area is more politically conservative, but not uniformly so.

Virginia has 11 seats in the House of Representatives. Currently, three are held by Democrats, the rest by Republicans. So far this election season, none of the House seats are open and none of the incumbents of either party appear to be seriously challenged. So attention is focused on the presidential and Senate races, which have both been dead heats up to now.

But this week, a Washington Post poll and a Quinnipiac University/New York Times poll show Kaine pulling ahead of Allen, by 8 and 7 percentage points respectively. President Obama is leading Mitt Romney in the polls by approximately the same margins.

Nobody in the Obama-Kaine camp is taking victory for granted. Virginia has some restrictive measures that may be used to tamp down the vote in the Democratic Party’s strongholds of African-American, Latino, youth and other sectors of the electorate.

In the first place, Virginia has tough laws on the disenfranchisement of convicted felons. When a person gets out of prison, his or her vote is not automatically restored. The ex prisoner has to appeal to the governor who decides on a case by case basis whether to restore citizenship rights.

Secondly, Virginia passed and Republican Governor Jim McDowell signed a voter-ID law earlier this year, and last month the U.S. Department of Justice decided not to try to block it. This law is not as extreme as those recently passed in Pennsylvania, Texas and some other states. For example, it does not require a photo ID. A voter who turns up at the polling place without acceptable ID can vote provisionally, but must return by the Friday after elections with the correct ID or the vote will not count. There is a danger that people will simply not return, either because their employers won’t permit a second absence from work or due to simple discouragement. So extra efforts are underway to make sure that every voter is able to present ID acceptable election authorities the first time around.

Photo: Stock image of Tim Kaine, speaking at previous DNC. clif // CC 2.0


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.