Bromides come and go in politics. Conventional wisdom tends to persevere until it’s no longer either conventional or wise.
But there’s one truism in Virginia politics that, with one exception over the past five decades, has been validated repeatedly: you don’t want to be running for governor representing the same party as the president.
That’s why the happiest folks in Virginia over President Donald Trump’s apparent loss in the presidential election should be the state’s beleaguered Republican Party.
The last Republican to win election statewide in Virginia was Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009, less than 10 months after Democrat Barack Obama became the nation’s 44th president.
In the 11 years since, Virginia Republicans are not only winless in races for statewide office and the presidency, they’ve lost once-overwhelming majorities in the House of Delegates, the state Senate and the commonwealth’s 11-member congressional delegation.
Worse, they watched in disbelief as a sitting governor survived what figured to be a terminal scandal in 2019 after a photo of a man in blackface and another in Klan garb appeared on his medical school yearbook page and then rallied his party to convincingly win legislative majorities later that year.
What does the Grand Old Party have to do to catch a break?
If past serves as precedent, lose a presidential race — and a bitterly contested one at that.
Virginians aren’t big on presidential honeymoons. They’re attentive observers and discerning critics of whomever takes the reins across the Potomac. That’s because no state is more intimately tied to the federal government than the commonwealth — home to the Pentagon, an enormous Northern Virginia workforce employed by either Uncle Sam or government contractors, and numerous military posts including the world’s largest U.S. Navy base. So when the White House sneezes, Virginia catches a cold.
Maybe that’s why in the 11 gubernatorial elections since 1973, Virginia voters have awarded the Executive Mansion in Richmond to a candidate of the sitting president’s party just once: to Terry McAuliffe in 2013, the year Obama began his second term.
One possible explanation has been that presidential election years draw the largest and more politically different electorate. Unlike most states, Virginia holds some sort of election every November. The governor’s race is always in the odd-numbered year immediately following the presidential race. The other two years are for congressional or state legislative seats.
A massive bloc of voters closely attuned to federal issues — largely in the Washington, D.C., suburbs — turns out most heavily in presidential elections and recedes somewhat for the next three years. Without that quadrennial infusion of federally linked voters, a more traditionally Virginia electorate had more say in the big three statewide offices.
“You can track this over time. We have smaller turnout by anywhere from eight to 12 or 13 percent in gubernatorial races than we have in the federal races,” said Quentin Kidd, a longtime political science professor and dean of the College of Social Sciences at Christopher Newport University. “What used to be ‘old Virginia’ or traditional Virginia would vote in the gubernatorial races and the off- and off-off-year races.”
That would explain the past 45 or so years. But it might not explain things going forward. One reason may be the sustained and broadening success Democrats have achieved in the past dozen years, not just in the more liberal suburban D.C. market but in past GOP strongholds downstate.
Just as Republicans owned Virginia in presidential races for 40 years beginning with Richard Nixon in 1968, Democrats have dominated since Barack Obama broke the GOP string in 2008. Joe Biden carried Virginia this year with 54 percent of the vote over Trump in a record-setting turnout. Since McDonnell last won for the GOP, it has lost its majorities in the General Assembly and Virginia’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation, which it once dominated 8-3. In the past two years, both Democratic U.S. senators romped to easy re-election.
This month’s race offered some troubling omens for the GOP as downstate suburban regions that had been Republican fortresses for half a century or more supported Biden. Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city, had not supported a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but went for Biden. So did Lynchburg and Chesterfield County, where no Democrat had won since Harry Truman in 1948.
Does the bluing of the Old Dominion so far outside northern Virginia make McAuliffe’s election seven years ago, with a Democrat in the Oval Office, a harbinger of Democratic hegemony rather than an aberration in the state’s role as a consistent contrarian?
“I am not convinced that the pattern holds once Virginia becomes a Democratic state,” Kidd said. “In this last election, the story about Chesterfield has gone everywhere. It wasn’t just that they voted for a Democrat for the first time since the ’40s, it was … a 6 (percentage)-point Democratic win. Since 2000 … Chesapeake went from voting 8.2 (percentage points favoring a) Republican to 6.2 (points favoring Biden) this year. Virginia Beach is the same kind of story but the swing is even more dramatic. In 2000, Virginia Beach was Republican by 14 points. It was Democratic by 7.6 (points) this year.”
“What I would be really anxious about if I were a Republican is this is the second layer of suburban areas that’s shifting,” he said.
But Republicans have done themselves no favors, either, by nominating rigidly conservative statewide candidates in closed conventions or caucuses who are unpalatable to Virginia’s moderate-to-left suburban voters, Kidd said. Choosing nominees via primaries could help the GOP remedy that problem, he said.
“I am not convinced that the majority of Republican voters are of the E.W. Jackson/Corey Stewart/Amanda Chase wing of the party,” Kidd said, referring to two unsuccessful past candidates and one now pursuing the nomination from the party’s right flank.
In fact, the table may be set for a Republican who knows how to speak to a suburban electorate without alienating the GOP’s energetic conservative base. The last candidate to thread that needle, McDonnell, was a longtime House of Delegates member and former state attorney general whose bona fides with social and religious conservatives allowed him to focus on a simple, universal and compelling pocketbook message in the depths of the Great Recession: “Bob’s for jobs.”
“By no stretch of the imagination would anyone call Bob McDonnell a moderate. He was a very socially conservative, very hardcore Republican who was perfectly happy hanging out on the religious right side of the party. But he knew how to run a statewide election and he knew that he needed to speak to the median voters in Virginia, and … he did that with ‘Bob’s for jobs,’” Kidd said.
The GOP has some potential candidates as the 2021 field takes shape who check many of the same boxes McDonnell did. Among them are former House Speaker Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights; state Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg; former U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock of McLean. What they lack is the name recognition McDonnell had then or that McAuliffe has now as he ponders a bid to become Virginia’s first two-term governor since Mills Godwin last did it in 1973.
The next 12 months should answer questions about whether Virginia remains a steady counterpoint to national elections, or whether it has done something it does not do easily: change.