Anyone living in Virginia for a while and listening closely can hear New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore moving to the Old Dominion.
These cultural and political changes are becoming louder and clearer each year, in terms of the accents spoken here as well as the demographics of candidates winning elections.
This month’s midterm elections across Virginia flipped the state’s congressional map from seven Republican districts and four represented by Democrats to seven that will be held by Democrats in January and four by Republicans.
The U.S. Senate contest also colored the political map of Virginia more blue, leaving 81 mostly smaller and rural counties and small cities voting Republican red while the larger localities in the north, central and eastern parts of the state continue making the state more blue.
The three congressional districts that flipped and elected Democratic women are the Northern Virginia 10th, the Central Virginia 7th and the Hampton Roads 2nd. The demographics of those districts, as well as the solid blue 3rd, 4th, 8th and 11th, are closer to Maryland and Pennsylvania politically than they are to rural southern and Southwest Virginia.
President Trump, who disparaged GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock after she lost her seat in the 10th for rejecting his “embrace,” is hastening Virginia’s rapid retreat from Republican dominance of its congressional delegation.
Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said, “Demographic evolution in these districts reinforced the prime motivator for voters — to send Donald Trump a message of disapproval and to create an institutional check on Trump in the House of Representatives.”
Brian Schoeneman, a Republican member of the Fairfax County Electoral Board from 2013-2015, said Comstock’s loss was due to Trump, not her lack of embracing him. Some voters who had backed her in previous elections cast ballots for a Democrat this time to send Trump a message, he said. Among independents, a number of them viewed their congressional votes as their only means of protest against Trump, he added.
“I was angry to see the president claim that Barbara’s loss … was the result of her not embracing the president,” Schoeneman said. He noted that Democrat Jennifer Wexton, who won the seat, and her allies spent close to $10 million painting Comstock as a rubber-stamp Trump supporter. “It was patently absurd to see anybody, let alone the president, make the claim that it was Barbara’s failure to fully embrace him that was the cause of the loss.”
Trump, who does not make a habit of blaming himself, in effect took a large blue paintbrush to much of the Virginia map’s suburbs that had been voting Republican until recent years.
Former Sen. John Watkins, a Chesterfield County Republican businessman, said Trump motivated many women to work against the president's favorite Central Virginia congressman, 7th District Rep. Dave Brat, who lost to Democrat Abigail Spanberger by 175,821 votes to 169,234.
Watkins, a General Assembly veteran known as a moderate, said the Trump effect from 2016 lasted two years and motivated women, "primarily from the suburbs of the Richmond area, who realized that they needed to be accounted for in the elected offices around the state. They then carried that momentum into the 2018 elections with great success,” Watkins said.
"I am not sure that Brat lost that many Republican voters. However, his adherence to the conservative caucus drove many, if not most, independents to Spanberger. She was willing to say that she would work across the aisle."
Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, said that Trump was more responsible than demographic shifts for the loss of the trio of GOP seats held by Comstock, Brat and 2nd District Rep. Scott Taylor.
“We saw a sharp shift of college-educated voters away from the Republicans due to President Trump,” she said. “These voters usually sit out midterm elections but showed up en mass on Election Day to support Democrats to express dissatisfaction with President Trump.”
Trump and one of his former campaign managers, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Corey Stewart, totally embraced each other and did not shy away from white nationalist themes. Both promoted fear of immigrants to the point of labeling 7,000 Hispanic political asylum seekers and other Central Americans as a dangerous invasion force.
But it is not only Trump. Virginia’s large urban and suburban localities are electing more Democrats in recent years and gaining new residents from the north, while rural areas west and south of Chesterfield County largely remain Republican and, in many cases, are losing residents. In all, 61 of Virginia’s 133 cities and counties are losing population, said Hamilton Lombard, research and policy analyst at UVa’s Demographics Research Group.
Listening to the accents, long-time Virginians can detect that many of their newer neighbors hail from states to the north. The top five states from which new Virginians arrived two years ago were, in rank order, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Meanwhile, many other Virginians are leaving the state and moving farther south, Lombard said. The top five new homes of former Virginians are Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina.
Also, as U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine noted in one of his debates with Stewart, one Virginian in 100 in 1970 was born abroad, while today one in nine was born in a foreign country. Since 2011, more Virginia citizens were born outside the commonwealth than in the state.
Newer Virginians from northern states and overseas bring their political predispositions with them and generally abhor treating black residents, LGBTQ or foreign-born residents as second-class citizens or worse. They have no loyalty to the Stars and Bars.
Virginia’s rural-urban divide and a residual regard for the Confederate flag and monuments played a part in the Nov. 6 elections. Stewart, who actively rallied around divisive Confederate monuments the past two years, won only 41 percent of the vote in losing by a landslide to Kaine.
Political observers said it is strange to see the formerly solid GOP counties won by Kaine to include Chesterfield, Stafford, Fluvanna, Essex, Westmoreland, James City and Prince Edward.
Stephen Farnsworth, University of Mary Washington political scientist, said Kaine’s 16-point victory margin on Nov. 6 "marked the ninth consecutive statewide election in which the Republican Party has come up short: Democrats won all three elections for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general in both 2013 and 2017, as well as the U.S. Senate races of 2012, 2014 and 2018.”
He added: “On balance, Trump’s combative politics and temperament were a profound liability for the Republican candidates trying to win votes in the suburbs.”
Because Virginia holds elections every year, and 2019 is the year all 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot, Republicans must be wondering how long Trump will be painting Virginia’s map blue.
Bob Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the center.