For decades in Virginia, there was national politics and there was state politics.
Never the twain did meet — and deliberately so. A quirky calendar of off-off-year and off-off-off-year elections insulated one from the other.
The line dividing the two has been blurring. This past week in Philadelphia, it was erased by Tim Kaine, the Democratic nominee for vice president.
No longer can anyone claim to be a “Virginia Democrat,” a label denoting a definite separateness.
Through the machine era, from the 1900s until the early 1960s — initiated by Thomas Staples Martin, then perfected by Harry F. Byrd Sr. — a Virginia Democrat was a conservative. He was expected to be tightfisted with taxpayer money, suspicious of the federal government, and resistant to what became its principal manifestation: racial desegregation, hastened by civil rights legislation and court edict.
In the 1980s, when the party clawed back from more than a decade of losses, a Virginia Democrat was a moderate. He still was expected to be disciplined with public funds but acknowledged the benefits of federal spending for a state whose economy derived more than 1 in 4 dollars from Washington. He supported the racial progress achieved in the preceding two decades.
In the 2000s, as the party recovered from another drought, a Virginia Democrat is a liberal. He happily spends your dollars, occasionally raises more through tax increases for education, law enforcement and welfare, or avails himself of federal giveaways for transportation and health care. He reflexively stands firm for abortion and gay rights, while pushing for restrictions on firearms.
Virginia and national Republicans have become pretty much indistinguishable — conservative, and increasingly so — since the state party rejected the centrist approach of Kaine’s father-in-law, Linwood Holton, who from 1970 until 1974 was the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. The son-in-law’s ascent suggests a measure of justice for the GOP’s repudiation of Holton.
Virginia Democrats’ drift left is, in part, a consequence of the state’s growth and demographic change; specifically, the multihued diversification of the minority vote, the growth of the suburbs, and a population dominated by migrants from other states, such as Kaine, a Minnesota-born kid from Kansas who met his future wife in Massachusetts and followed her here.
Virginia Republicans’ shift further right can be attributed to its unwillingness to defy its core constituency: a shrinking pool of older white voters, most of them male. Their numbers are abundant in the countryside and fringe suburbs, requiring that Republicans thwart the rising power of nonwhites and newcomers through gerrymandering and voter restrictions that recall Virginia’s racially riven past.
The Republicans’ recent victory in the Supreme Court of Virginia, reversing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s order restoring en masse voting rights to 206,000 convicted felons, indicates that some of the old ways — and the older thinking behind them — endure.
During the fight over the McAuliffe order, Republicans made a point of refusing to offer ways to bring those long on the outside back into civic life.
Republicans depict the McAuliffe decree as a naked attempt to tip Virginia to his old pal Hillary Clinton with a flood of felon votes. Would there even be such a flood? A study by Stanford and Penn legal scholars in demographically similar North Carolina after the first Barack Obama election — he carried the state — showed that 1 in 3 felons registered and 1 in 5 voted.
Maybe, if only in Virginia — since 2008, a battleground state after four decades as being reliably Republican at the presidential level — Kaine proves a bigger vote-booster for Clinton than felons ever could be, though political scientists and campaign professionals often are divided on the pluses that a vice presidential candidate brings to a national ticket.
In 2012, when Obama repeated in Virginia, Kaine ran ahead of the president by nearly 40,000 votes. In 2008, when Obama broke the Republican win streak, Mark Warner outperformed him by nearly 400,000 votes. Kaine and Warner were depicted by their opponents as liberal clones of Obama and, for the most part, they’ve proven to be just that.
However, in the high-turnout universe that is a presidential election, Virginia made clear that while Kaine and Warner may have been liberals, they were Virginia’s liberals. Both had the good fortune of facing deeply flawed or very weak Republicans. That was testimony to the GOP’s shallow bench, itself a result of a diminishing base.
Kaine’s pulling power may not be able to overcome the powerful negatives associated with Clinton. Published polls show her ahead of Donald Trump in Virginia from 7 percentage points to 9 percentage points, but she — and Trump — are burdened here, as they are across the country, by doubts about their trustworthiness and that many voters simply don’t like them.
Should Kaine supplement Clinton’s totals, it may be most evident in areas with the most votes, particularly deep-blue Northern Virginia. And that might generate one headwind too many for Barbara Comstock, the hardworking frosh Republican member of Congress not as much running against LuAnn Bennett as running from Trump.
Comstock’s district has a history of ticket-splitting. Veteran Republican Frank Wolf was comfortably winning there when Obama was, too.
However, in transient Northern Virginia, change is measured in minutes. Voters corralled one day by Comstock move out the next. And the district’s vast federal workforce may have little confidence she can stand up for it against the bureaucrat-bashing Trump.
Should Comstock survive a Clinton-Kaine victory that includes Virginia — and her district — she’ll be a favorite for the seat in the U.S. Senate that Kaine would surrender by January. McAuliffe would appoint an interim senator, who would defend the seat in a special election concurrent with the 2017 gubernatorial contest. The winner would run again in 2018, when Kaine’s term would have ended.
Anticipating a Clinton-Kaine win, both parties are musing over their options for the Senate. They’re numerous and, in some instances, surprising.
It’s no secret that Bobby Scott, the state’s only African-American congressman, is interested. Republicans considering the seat are said to include little-known Del. Jimmie Massie of Henrico and the guy Warner beat in 2008, former Gov. Jim Gilmore. Pete Snyder, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2013, also is mentioned.
Money won’t be a problem for either party. Special elections for a U.S. Senate seat are rare. Virginia’s probably would be the only one in the country in 2017. That’s an invitation for Democrats and Republicans and their allied special interests to pump tens of millions of dollars into the state — and more, if the Kaine seat decides control of the Senate.
State politics and national politics are one and the same.