How rural Virginia made itself politically relevant again

And how Democrats totally missed it

November 15, 2021 12:02 am

The sun sets over a hazy mountain ridge in Highland County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

It’s been a while since rural Virginia could claim it was heard in the corridors of state government power in Richmond as the populous northern Virginia and eastern suburbs turned the commonwealth a deeper hue of blue with each passing election.

Until the second day of November this year, the last time most of ROVA — the Rest of Virginia — had cause to smile on election night was 2009, when Republican Bob McDonnell leveraged the abrupt end of a new Democratic president’s honeymoon and the depths of the Great Recession to perfect a rare GOP sweep.

That’s 11 Novembers without cause to lift a cold one over election results in the state’s sparsely populated, Republican-voting areas until Glenn Youngkin came out of nowhere offering an antidote to Democratic governance that many felt went too far too fast and was increasingly contemptuous of their culture and values.

The Election Day turnout in rural Virginia was historic. Twenty-five percent more Virginians cast ballots in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election than voted in what had been the previous record vote for governor in 2017. Voting was slightly more robust in rural areas where about 56 percent of registered voters cast ballots for governor compared with urban and rural localities where about 54 percent showed up, according to State Department of Elections data.

While McAuliffe still won the immediate suburbs, Youngkin eroded the margins McAuliffe needed to overcome the rural, red tsunami.

A compelling visualization prepared by the Virginia Public Access Project illustrates how turnout was up in almost every locality, with the greatest increases in those that voted Republican, notably cities and counties mostly outside the urban-suburban crescent that bends from Washington’s bedroom communities south to Richmond and its suburbs and then southeast to Hampton Roads.

It’s no mystery, according to two Democratic strategists who specialize in the lost art of helping their candidates connect with voters in places where there aren’t Starbucks every other block, where pickup trucks outnumber sedans and where “the season” more often refers to deer hunting than football or hoops.

Steve Jarding and David “Mudcat” Saunders saw this year’s outcome way back.

”Talk about a guy who could not connect and relate to rural Virginia, that’s Terry McAuliffe,” said Jarding, who, with Saunders, was an adviser to the successful Virginia campaigns of Gov. Mark Warner in 2001 and Sen. Jim Webb in 2006.

The last intentional, sustained and significant rural outreach by a Democratic gubernatorial race was Warner’s 21 years ago. It was the centerpiece of his strategy. Republicans had ruled the countryside for years and put an exclamation point on that fact one year earlier when it went strongly for President George W. Bush and former Gov. George Allen’s in his inaugural Senate run.

Warner was lampooned by some for some of the tactics Jarding and Saunders employed for him to court the rural electorate. He entered a car bearing his campaign’s logo into a NASCAR race in Martinsville. He commissioned a plucky bluegrass campaign song with lyrics Saunders adapted to the melody of “Dooley.” The campaign formed a “Sportsmen for Warner” group led by hunting and fishing rights advocates that also helped reassure Second Amendment voters that he meant them no harm.

Saunders calls such high-visibility campaign contrivances “pyrotechnics” that weren’t intended to make Warner, a wealthy Old Town Alexandria resident with a taste for lattes, a bona fide Bubba. He’s wasn’t – and isn’t.

Rather, it’s a signal to rural voters that he understood and respected their communities and their culture and values, said Jarding and Saunders, co-authors of “Foxes in the Henhouse,” their 2006 book on how Democrats surrendered the rural South to the GOP.

“Democrats don’t do any pyrotechnics anymore,” Saunders, a Roanoke businessman who now resides in Craig County, said last week after a day of deer hunting.

But the pyrotechnics don’t work if you’re not there, and the Democrats have not been in any meaningful way in a long time.

“In 2001, Mark literally went to Southwest and Southside Virginia 41 times,” Jarding recalled.

“We went. We spent a lot of time there, we tapped into the culture, we let people know we gave a damn and we didn’t let our opponents define us,” Jarding said.

It paid off. Warner amassed about half the rural vote in winning the election over Republican Mark Earley by 5 percentage points.

Since then, however, the focus for Democrats shifted primarily to winning Virginia’s fast-growing and increasingly moderate suburbs, particularly in the Beltway area heavily dependent on federal government employment and major federal contractors. And it worked.

It seemed impossible for Virginia’s farming communities and milling communities, which once dominated politics in Virginia, to outvote the cities and suburbs. From 2005 through this year, Democrats won three out of four gubernatorial elections.

The trend only worsened in Virginia in the era of Donald Trump. With him either on the ballot or in office, a pervasive loathing for Trump energized overwhelming suburban/urban anti-Republican turnouts. By 2019, the party that had controlled every elective institution of federal or state government in Virginia had turned all of it over to the Democrats. The last time the GOP had been so utterly locked out of power in Virginia was 1968.

And just as quickly as Democrats hit their zenith in a 2020 presidential election where President Joe Biden won by Virginia by 10 percentage points, it all went disastrously south.

With the economy struggling for the past two years, inflation driving up fuel and food costs, the dismal denouement to the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, angry confrontations over school board meetings over curricula, racial issues, mask mandates and transgender restroom policies and a sudden leftward legislative lurch that ended the death penalty and tightened access to firearms, all of it overseen by Democrats, rural voters were itching for change. Memories are still fresh of the pre-pandemic revolts two years ago against gun-control laws enacted by a newly Democratic General Assembly. Rural cities and counties declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” where sheriffs, police chiefs and commonwealth’s attorneys vowed not to enforce the new laws.

Amherst County residents raise their hands to show support for their county’s “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution. November 19, 2019. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

“People out here are energized. They’re pissed,” Saunders said. “We’re in a new age of economic populism and the Democrats haven’t picked up on it. And then Trump brought out that anger. He made it OK for somebody to hate somebody else just because of what they believe.”

He said McAuliffe, who was governor from 2014-2018, was viewed as not just an incumbent but an incumbent Democrat in a year when being either was problematic but being both was fatal out in the country.

The Republicans nominated the most diverse ticket in Virginia history led by an unknown, wealthy former hedge fund executive who promised to cut grocery and gasoline taxes and give parents more say over schools. The Democrats, meanwhile, nominated a moderate, sixtysomething, lifelong political insider somewhat out of character with the party’s young, progressive and diverse base whose dominant campaign message was to brand his GOP foe “Trump in khakis.”

After crushing loss, ‘gimmicky’ anti-Trump strategy draws criticism from Va. Democrats

McAuliffe’s unceasing Trump-baiting drowned out his own substantial policy platform, much of it relevant to longstanding rural problems such as the lack of economic opportunity that forces youth to leave their hometowns in search of jobs. He wound up doing Youngkin’s work for him.

Youngkin faced a potentially perilous balancing act between being seen as too close to Trump, thus galvanizing suburban voters against him, and rejecting the former president and incurring the wrath of his mostly rural loyalists. As it worked out, Youngkin largely avoided the issue, outsourcing the work of validating himself with Trump loyalists to McAuliffe while he focused on issues resonant with both rural and suburban voters.

Rural Republicans will see the spoils soon, likely in some of the governor-elect’s cabinet and major agency leadership appointments. They’ll see it when a new General Assembly convenes in early January and both the new speaker of the House and majority leader will be rural Republicans, Todd Gilbert and Terry Kilgore, respectively.

While there’s no guarantee how long it will last, at least for a time, country is cool again on Capitol Square.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]