By the summer of 1864, Confederate armies were hitting the limits of their strength: short on men, short on supplies, and losing ground in key theaters of the war. A reinvigorated Army of the Potomac, led by Ulysses S. Grant, had inflicted heavy casualties throughout the spring, pushing closer to the Confederate capital of Richmond. To regain the initiative, Robert E. Lee directed Lieutenant General Jubal Early to assault the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia, clear it of Union troops, then move on to Maryland and force Grant to defend Washington, D.C. The plan worked, but the fundamentals of the war hadn’t changed. The Confederacy was still weak, and Grant still had more men, more supplies, and a talented corps of experienced generals. At most, Lee had managed to delay the inevitable.
Today’s political situation in Virginia resembles those Civil War dynamics from 1864. Barack Obama’s landmark victory in 2008 made him the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, establishing Virginia as one of the South’s new battlegrounds. Democrats’ long-term prospects in the state are bright, with population trends pointing to a lasting progressive majority, but Virginia Republicans won’t cede their turf without a determined fight. The GOP countered Obama’s 2008 win by dominating the state’s off-year elections in 2009, electing conservative Bob McDonnell as governor and picking up seats in the assembly. This year, on the heels of another decisive Obama victory in 2012, Republicans hope to again signal that Democrats have not yet won the war.
Virginia’s governor’s race is the South’s only marquee election in 2013, pitting Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a champion of “old Virginia,” against former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe, a New York native and Washington
insider who symbolizes “new Virginia.” In his three years as attorney general, Cuccinelli has made himself the face of right-wing revanchism. He’s opposed to abortion in all cases including rape and incest, gun control, new taxes (even to pay for road improvements), and environmental regulations. His office has filed suit against climate scientists for allegedly falsifying data, and his lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act was one of the first in the nation to attack the law. Virginia’s business community wants little to do with Cuccinelli; he personifies the far-right wing of the Republican Party.
McAuliffe counters Cuccinelli’s boundless extremism with boundless opportunism. Virginia has been his home base for a long career as a mega-fundraiser for the Democratic Party—the Clintons in particular. He ran for the gubernatorial nomination four years ago but came in a poor third despite spending a small fortune. McAuliffe would have struggled to win the nomination this time if anyone had contested it. Aside from his perpetually sunny salesman’s personality, his primary virtue as a candidate, if you can consider it a virtue, is his vast network of moneyed Democratic elites.
If McAuliffe wins, it will show that the Democrats’ demographic advantages have become so entrenched that they can overcome even a weak candidate. Virginia’s growing diversity made Obama’s four-point victories in 2008 and 2012 possible; he carried only 39 percent and 37 percent of whites. Since 2000, the state’s Latino population has nearly doubled to 8 percent; the Asian American population has grown from 4 percent to 6 percent; the African American population has held steady at 20 percent, while whites have declined from 74 percent to 65 percent of Virginians.
The political character of the white population has also changed. The huge expansion of military spending under President George W. Bush turned vast areas of the state into hubs for service members and defense contractors. This attracted Northern transplants, most of them whites with moderate or liberal views, to the seven cities of Hampton Roads and the sprawling suburbs of Northern Virginia.
The Obama campaign recognized those trends in the run-up to 2008 and acted accordingly, pumping millions into the state. By Election Day, the Obama campaign had 70 field offices and thousands of volunteers in the commonwealth, a tremendous number given the state’s size and relative importance on the electoral map. The campaign’s success in registering and turning out new voters and galvanizing volunteers gave the Democrats high hopes of taking control of state politics in 2009. But the party ran smack into one of the state’s more unusual political traditions—contrarianism.
Since the late 1960s, both parties have had reason to believe they were taking command of Virginia politics, only to have their expectations repeatedly dashed. When Richard Nixon carried Virginia, it looked like the state would become the South’s first GOP stronghold. Republicans elected governors in 1969, 1973, and 1977 and expected to keep winning after Ronald Reagan swept the state in 1980. But Democrats took the governor’s office back in 1981 and 1985, at the height of the GOP’s Southern surge. In every governor’s race since 1977, in fact, Virginians have voted against the party controlling the White House—even if they had just voted for that party one year earlier.
Can Democrats break the pattern in November and translate their presidential gains into statewide influence? Yes, if they can mobilize the young voters, African Americans, and new immigrant communities that delivered Obama’s wins. That’s difficult to do in a non-presidential year. In 2008, 39 percent of Virginia’s voters were Democratic; in 2009, that figure fell to 33 percent, while Republican turnout was steady. McAuliffe’s campaign will have the money to run an aggressive turnout operation. Whether an inside-the-Beltway party operative can fire up Virginia’s new voters is an open question, however.
If Cuccinelli pulls off a victory, on the other hand, he’ll be the Jubal Early of 2013—a hard-charging, guns-a-blazing, far-right Republican repelling the Democratic invasion that is fundamentally altering the South. But, just as in 1864, their victory would almost surely be short-lived. Republicans will eventually have to overhaul both their image and their platform to fit the more cosmopolitan Virginia of the future. A Cuccinelli victory could prove a mixed blessing for his party. If Republicans can still elect an ultra-conservative governor, GOP leaders might conclude, why should they bother to change? Meanwhile, Virginia will keep growing younger and browner, and Democrats will be ever closer to ultimately winning the war.
Editor's note, June 7, 2013: The original version of this piece referred to "The huge expansion of military spending under President George H.W. Bush." The president in question was in fact George W. Bush. The piece has since been updated to reflect the change.