Virginia’s status as a blue state has long been exaggerated by pundits outside the commonwealth. It was based on the assumption that the Republican Party’s decade-long losing streak in statewide and federal elections was an indicator that demographics and the expansion of the D.C. blob into Virginia’s northeast corner had permanently condemned it to rule by Democrats. But it was not Democrats who drove Virginia Republicans into the wilderness for that long decade; the Virginia Republican Party marched there on its own.
Virginia has a long tradition of political independence. As the home of the nation’s military and intelligence apparatus, in modern times it has loyally supported Republicans and hawkish Democrats for federal office. Up until the 1990s, Democrats had a lock on state and local politics. Many of these Democrats were very fine people, often more socially conservative and supportive of working- and middle-class interests than their patrician Republican opponents. They also had a tradition of fiscal restraint and common sense, stemming from the Harry Byrd machine which ran the state for decades—and ran it well.
But national Democrats diverged from working-class populism and increasingly embraced liberalism, creating a schism between traditional Democrats and the New Democrats, one in which the New Democrats won control of both the party and the White House with the 1992 election of Bill Clinton.
One year later, there was George Allen. He started the campaign 29 points behind Virginia’s Democratic attorney general, Mary Sue Terry, and ran as a tobacco-spitting, football playing, redneck son of the South (though he grew up in Southern California and is technically Jewish) who wore cowboy boots and lived in a log cabin, campaigning on culture war proxy issues like the importance of allowing parents to let their children ride in the back of pickup trucks and kicking lazy welfare recipients off the dole. He won that election by 17 points.
It was a sign of things to come: Allen was the canary in the coal mine for the Republican Revolution of 1994, and the beginning of the end of dominance for Boll Weevil Democrats.
For the next decade, Republicans in Virginia would be competitive on the state and local level, if not totally dominant. When the end did come for Allen’s political career (he was term-limited as governor but won a U.S. Senate seat in 2000), it would not be defeat at the hands of a New Democrat but one of an older sort, Jim Webb, who came like a Scots-Irish phantom to win back rural Virginians who felt betrayed by Allen’s embrace of Bush-era Republican liberalism.
It turns out that chewing tobacco isn’t enough to retain the votes of laid-off factory workers whose good-paying manufacturing jobs were shipped off to China, whose sons were sent to a Middle-East quagmire, and whose communities were being poisoned by Big Pharma’s pain pills while the Bush Justice Department ran interference against conservative Virginia prosecutors who were going after the Sackler Family.
Republicans Lose the Thread
Barack Obama capitalized on Republican betrayal of rural and small-town Virginians, campaigning in the coalfields of Appalachia with such local luminaries as the bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. Barns were painted with his logo and his declaration of reverence for the Second Amendment. It should be noted that while most people think of him solely as the first black president, he was half Scots-Irish and raised in a Scots-Irish home. He knew how to talk to those people, and thanks to that he became the first Democrat since 1964 to win Virginia in a presidential election—and it was not a close margin. But after his election, it quickly became clear that he was not the old-school blue dog populist he presented himself to be, but was rather indistinguishable from any other Clinton Democrat.
One year later, Bob McDonnell rode another surge of reaction to an 18-point victory, powered by a broad and unified conservative-moderate coalition. He governed as a conservative, and was widely popular until the Obama Justice Department—nervous about what he might do in the 2012 presidential campaign—indicted him on sham charges of corruption. His conviction was later vacated by a unanimous ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, but the damage had been done.
Virginia Democrats, including Terry McAuliffe, were loath to attack McDonnell publicly—after all, they found the Justice Department’s standard of what constituted corruption far too high for their own comfort, in a state that has long taken a relaxed view of campaign finance and patronage. But Ken Cuccinelli, the firebrand conservative attorney general, saw an opportunity to sideline McDonnell’s allies in the Republican Party of Virginia and did just that, stabbing McDonnell in the back by declining to defend him at a crucial juncture of the case.
Cuccinelli would go on to have his allies on the state party central committee change the nomination process for the 2013 governor’s race to a convention, not a primary, held in Roanoke rather than Richmond. This effectively sidelined Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, who was more popular with Virginia Republican voters but not with the activist base. This cutthroat move led to a massive schism in the Republican Party and a descent into dysfunction which left the party unable to coordinate effective statewide campaigns.
Still, Cuccinelli nearly managed to pull off a win over McAuliffe in 2013, despite deep divisions, a trainwreck of a campaign strategy, and running out of money two weeks before the election. Reaction to Obama’s reelection ran that strong. And in 2014, the underwhelming Ed Gillespie managed to nearly unseat long-time Senator and former Governor Mark Warner. Warner held on by roughly 18,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast, which would surely not have been the case if the Virginia Republican organization hadn’t just committed seppuku.
Along came Donald Trump. He won Virginia in the primaries and had high hopes of winning it in the general election of 2016, but his state campaign was every bit as dysfunctional as the Virginia Republican Party, a self-inflicted wound created by his decision to have the provocative gadfly Corey Stewart lead his campaign efforts there.
Stewart’s performance as campaign chair for the state was not just incompetent, it was embarrassing. Steve Bannon fired him a month out from the election, but the damage was done. Hillary Clinton carried the state by default. The dysfunction in the state party continued and Ralph Northam won the governor’s race the following year against Ed Gillespie, who ran on a platform of milquetoast Republican tropes causing the GOP base to stay home—though, in part, this apathy was also driven by having just won the White House in the previous election.
In 2020, the Virginia Republican Party had begun to pick itself up and the Trump campaign in the state was more competent at least, if under-resourced. But the real story was that Virginia Republicans had finally come to the conclusion that they had to organize and do the work themselves—there was no cavalry coming from the party machines.
The herculean work put in by volunteers on the ground looked like it was paying off, with Trump and GOP congressional candidates leading throughout the night in the Virginia returns, only for deep-blue counties like Fairfax to dump hundreds of thousands of mail-in votes that would normally be invalid (statutes governing absentee voting were suspended by elections officials as part of the COVID state of exception) and defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory once again.
Former CIA agent and turned Democratic U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger was on her way to a loss in Virginia’s 7th congressional district but a “mislabeled flash drive” was found containing enough absentee votes to put her over the top. Republican volunteers had done an admirable job of creating a bottom-up voter turnout organization of their own, but a sharp legal operation was too heavy a lift. That would take a competent state party and presidential campaign team. The election issues went unchallenged.
Never Go Full Progressive
The 2020 elections were a wake-up call to Virginia Republicans. Either we unite as a team, or we die as individuals. State party competency grew by leaps and bounds, fueled by bootstrapped grassroots organizations like the Virginia Project, which pushed voter integrity efforts and led a stunningly successful recruitment drive to make sure that every single seat in the Virginia House of Delegates was contested. This put Virginia Democrats on defense, having to fight to ensure their own victories instead of running unopposed and spending their time helping other Democrats.
Disorganized but long-brewing grassroots rebellions began to bubble over and coalesce into well-organized issue movements because Democrats, buoyed by their legislative and local gains in the 2017 and 2019 elections, departed from their old moderate style of governance and went full progressive—forgetting that they were facing an electorate of Virginians, not San Franciscans. Never go full progressive.
Progressives in the General Assembly began to push increasingly radical legislation, including a bill that would deny healthcare to infants who survived abortion and were born alive. Defending it, the formerly moderate Ralph Northam explained “The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired.” Essentially, a baby who survived abortion would be left without care until death, and this would be sanctioned by the state.
Virginians reacted with horror and disgust against the governor, which, ironically, only abated when a photo surfaced of Governor Northam wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. A slate of gun legislation brought forward that would implement California-style gun restrictions on the Commonwealth sparked a furor among Virginia gun-owners culminating in a 50,000+ strong protest in Richmond in January 2020 and a movement that led to nearly 200 counties and municipalities declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries which would not enforce gun restrictions if passed.
Parents, unaware until COVID remote learning brought public schooling into their homes, began to show up at local school board meetings in protest of the radical indoctrination that was targeting their children. Anti-development activists began to push back on local elected Democrats in Prince William County who sought to destroy the protected rural areas in the western end of the county (where the remaining base of Republican voters happens to live) and fill it with industrial parks, data centers, and subdivision favelas, showing up at citizen’s time to unleash a torrent of ridicule and invective.
During these long fights were flashpoints that fed the intensity of the rebellion. One of the rural construction projects approved by Prince William County Democrats dug up an old slave cemetery. Suddenly local black activists found new kinship with the anti-development Republicans and signed up for the Party. In neighboring Loudoun County, the parents’ revolt against the school board took on an ever more diverse character, finding support among previously Democratic constituencies.
All these single-issue movements needed now was a hammer to smash the Democratic power structure. That hammer came in the form of a 6-foot-7 financier named Glenn Youngkin. A total outsider to politics, he was a blank slate onto which the different factions could write their own interests. At first, it looked like he would run a somewhat traditional Republican campaign, with little hope of success. But he leaned in on the hot button cultural issues, while maintaining a moderate-friendly image as a suburban dad and leaving the reinforcement of his right-wing bona fides up to Terry McAuliffe.
McAuliffe paid real money to run ads telling voters that Youngkin was opposed to vaccine mandates, opposed to abortion, opposed to gun restrictions, and would essentially turn back the calendar in Virginia instead of “moving forward.” The problem with that message is that it sounds attractive to a lot of Virginians. My only fear is that it may be too optimistic. Only time will tell how far Youngkin is willing to turn back the calendar—and the Republican tendency is almost always to preserve the status quo rather than the status quo ante—but a win is a win, and his victory marks an opportunity for popular movements against progressivism to continue with a more sympathetic and persuadable state government.
The opportunity must not be wasted. The people cannot return in peace to their personal lives until total victory has been achieved. Strong efforts to fortify the integrity of our elections should continue, with a return of legitimate absentee voting in special circumstances only, rather than mail-in and early voting as a rule. It is a tough lift with a General Assembly in which the Senate is narrowly controlled by a one-vote Democratic majority, but there is much that can be done at the executive administrative level. Good-government populism is the ticket to shoring up power in the future.
The education system is a key priority for a good reason—it controls our future. In addition to charter schools, Virginia should fund students, not school administrators, with a system in which per-pupil funds are deducted from public schools and can be used instead for private, religious, and homeschooling. Further, there should be no restriction on the use of funds—which would enable a family with four children to receive roughly $66,000 per year for homeschooling them—making it possible for working families to live comfortably on a single income.
All Americans should take this win as a hopeful sign. The Right in American politics is alive and kicking in Virginia, and as goes Virginia, so goes the nation. And the Republican Party should take this as both a lesson and a warning: when politicians align with the people, they succeed. But when they abuse their power and the trust placed in them by the people, they will be consumed in wrath as Terry McAuliffe was. Govern wisely.