Virginia politics shaped by population shifts

Associated Press
This photo taken Oct. 10, 2012 shows Virginia voter Harry Donahue sitting in a rocker on the front porch of his farmhouse, built in the 1700's, in Farmville, Va.  Donahue, a 68-year-old retired chemical worker from Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs, moved to Virginia in 2001 and brought with him an independent streak and a voting pattern that ranges from Ronald Reagan to Ross Perot. He plans to back Obama this year after supporting John McCain in 2008.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
.

View gallery

FARMVILLE, Va. (AP) — For 10 presidential races in a row, Virginia voted reliably Republican. Then came 2008, and Barack Obama's victory. Now the GOP is battling to take back what it still regards as its turf.

But this isn't the sleepy, agrarian Old Dominion that reflexively backed Republicans in every White House election from Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 through George W. Bush in 2004, except for Lyndon Johnson's 1964 national landslide.

A population boom and its attendant cultural, economic and demographic changes, particularly since the 1990s, has transformed a state both parties had dismissed for decades as a Republican redoubt into a pivotal electoral battleground for the second presidential race in a row.

Virginians are unaccustomed to nonstop presidential campaign stops and incessant negative ads.

It's all aimed at Harry Donahue and other independent voters, many of whom altered Virginia's political complexion by moving here in the past 20 years.

The 68-year-old retired chemical worker from the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia moved to Virginia in 2001 and brought with him an independent streak and a voting pattern that ranges from Ronald Reagan to Ross Perot. He plans to back Obama this year after supporting John McCain in 2008.

"I liked John McCain. I thought he made good sense, stood for something," Donahue said. The Air Force veteran who favors blue jeans and a brush-cut hair style also respected McCain's record as a Navy pilot who was captured and held as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

But Romney?

"He just flip-flops too much. He didn't have an agenda — still doesn't," Donahue said. As for Obama, Donahue said: He's able to talk to ordinary people. He's not the uppity type that Romney is."

Donahue and his wife, Nancy, had vacationed often in Virginia. When he retired, they bought a farmhouse in Cumberland County, just outside this quaint and trendy small-college town that's steeped in Virginia's verdant political history.

In 1951, a classroom walkout by black students protesting a segregated and substandard public high school in Farmville became a signature moment in the civil rights struggle. It spawned a lawsuit over deep, race-based educational inequities 85 years after the Confederate surrender a few miles away at Appomattox. The case was part of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated public schools.

Then, as it had since Reconstruction, Virginia was ruled by a conservative, segregationist Democratic Party that, for much of the 20th century, dominated government from courthouses to the Statehouse. That changed in 1952, when Eisenhower carried Virginia. In 1968, Richard Nixon cemented Virginia into a solidly Republican South with his "Southern strategy" of appealing to white Dixie Democrats who felt their party had strayed too far left in advancing civil rights under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson.

The growth of federal power, born of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society programs, transformed Virginia's Washington, D.C., suburbs. The influx of people from all over the nation brought in new cultural and political ideas. Where people hunted rabbits in 1960, freeways and shopping malls stand today.

The sleepy tidewater communities of Hampton Roads, home to Virginia Beach and the world's largest U.S. Navy base at Norfolk, also grew into large cities and suburbs.

By the 1960s, the state's rural character had forever changed with more than half of Virginia residents living in urban settings, according to "Red State, Blue State," an analysis published in July by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

Virginia's population grew by 13 percent from 2000 to 2010, from about 7 million people to 8 million people. Hispanic or Latino populations nearly doubled over the period. The Asian population grew by 69 percent, the white population by 7 percent and the black population by 12 percent, according to census data.

Urbanization created a demand among city and suburban dwellers for more government services such as roads, public safety and public schools, a liberalizing influence on an electorate growing rapidly in the Washington Beltway and Hampton Roads.

Growth in northern Virginia in many cases exceeded the ability of state and local governments to keep pace with transportation demands, creating permanent highway gridlock that threatens the vitality of the state's economic engine.

Fairfax County, the state's most populous locality, has grown by 142 percent since 1960, from 455,000 people to 1.1 million. Its neighbor, bucolic Loudoun County, saw an eightfold increase, from 37,150 to 325,405 now, with three-fourths of it spiking in the last 20 years. Its rate of growth since 2000 was the fourth-fastest of any county in the nation.

"The center of energy in Virginia shifted increasingly to northern Virginia because of its population growth and its wealth," said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax County. "Politically, this state is very different from what it was just a generation ago."

While Virginia is a newcomer as a presidential battleground, Democrats and Republicans have been competitive in state races.

Obama won in 2008 in no small measure because of deep voter dismay with lame duck GOP President George W. Bush. That capped an eight-year run of Democratic dominance in which the party won two gubernatorial elections and took both U.S. Senate seats from Republicans.

An occasional look at how and why various states became presidential battlegrounds

View Comments