Democracy in Jeopardy: The Case Study of Elections in Virginia

The anti-democratic turn in politics around the world was startlingly highlighted by the events of January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol. The shock of it operated as a trigger for me (as it was for much of the world!) to pay closer attention to what is happening to democracies more generally, and not just in the US.  It inspired me to start writing this series on “Democracy in Jeopardy”, with the idea that I could at least focus on democratic challenges in the three countries where I have lived – USA, of course, but also France, where I have been living on and off for the past couple of decades, and India, where I spent much of my childhood.  One can hope that first-hand knowledge stimulates action. I have written extensively about my impressions of how democracy operates in France, and a bit about my memories of democracy in India. And although I have been following and have even been actively involved in American politics from afar, I am only now getting around to writing down my thoughts about the state of democracy in the US.  I start with my observations about politics in the state of Virginia – excuse me, the “Commonwealth” of Virginia!

For the United States, I have chosen to start with the current state of democracy in Virginia for two reasons. First, Virginia is where I vote and where I have done my politicking from afar – aided, to be fair, by having both a daughter and a son who are themselves active in Virginia politics.   Second, the state’s 2023 legislative elections for both the House (every two years) and the Senate (every four years) are not only more wide open than ever, but they are being closely monitored (and manipulated) for their potential impact on national politics in 2024.

But first, a bit more on the series: The challenges (or threats) to democracy that I have wanted to address are twofold: (1) understanding how and why this anti-democratic turn has happened, not just in the US but even in other apparently solid democracies elsewhere, and (2) exploring anew what people are doing to strengthen democratic values and to revitalize democratic practices in the face of this alarming trend. My emphasis has been on state and local politics in three of the countries where I have lived – India, USA and France. One may think that recent state-level elections in this Commonwealth of Virginia are generally indicative of an open and competitive process.  No one is questioning the results, for example, of the most recent gubernatorial election in Virginia  – in contrast to the way former President Trump and many of his supporters have denied the results of the 2020 Presidential election.  Thus, this commentary on Virginia starts with an appreciation for the competitive nature of statewide politics but also an awareness of how populism and demagoguery may be penetrating the process.

The Background

The overall upsurge in Republican control of state legislatures across the country over the past twenty or thirty years was certainly evident in Virginia. But demographic trends more recently have worked to reverse that. In the 1980s and 1990s, A lot of the shifting in political alignments has been attributed to a growing urban/rural divide. But Virginia had also witnessed the parallel phenomenon in the South when old-style Southern Democrats started protesting against civil rights legislation by voting Republican, first in Presidential elections (as early as 1968) and then in gubernatorial elections.  But it took a bit longer for the Republican Party to establish itself at more local levels. This did eventually take hold in Virginia and throughout the South (and, by the way, also much of the Midwest). The Virginia Senate went Republican in 1997, and the Virginia House, in 1999.

Virginia was indeed  the capital of the Confederacy, and Virginia’s old-style Democrats (long dominated by the Byrd machine) had stood out as hold-outs to political change. It had an early round of old-style (i.e. Lincoln-style) Republicans, but the Dixiecrats gradually shifted to being Republicans, making it one of the typically new Republican states of the South.  On the other hand, the growing urbanization and ethnic diversity in Virginia, especially around Northern Virginia (NOVA), but also in Richmond and Norfolk, have provided a growing electoral base of more progressive, non-Dixiecrat Democrats.  Even in Roanoke and Charlottesville.

But these were trends that were not irreversible. In fact, and to illustrate the point, one demographic segment that had been moving towards the Democrats (college-educated white suburban women) was clearly targeted by the politically astute Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, in 2021. His playing on the post-pandemic frustrations of parents (mostly mothers, I suppose) of school-age children was clearly a key part of his campaign strategy. And so was his carefully orchestrated alignment with the populist appeal of Trump supporters, a strong but not yet dominant faction in the Virginia Republican Party.

Curriculum issues, school choice issues and the like were stirred up with implicitly racist rhetoric of his campaign. Anti-woke, anti-affirmative action, anti-elite memes protesting loss of parental control over what students should learn were further reinforced in their effectiveness when his opponent, Terry McAuliffe actually said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach”.  I happen to agree with that, just as I have consistently been against state legislators dictating the educational curriculum. But it was the wrong way and place to say it.

Although I did vote for T Mac, I was not surprised that he lost to Youngkin. In retrospect, one could even suggest that he should not have run at all. Among contenders in the Democratic primary that year were two strong African-American women, at least one of whom (Jennifer McClellan) chose to run for governor rather than lieutenant governor.  But neither of them was ultimately in serious contention, with McAuliffe winning over 60% of the primary vote. One could therefore argue, also in retrospect, that her running for lieutenant governor would not have made any difference since the entire top of the ticket lost to the Republicans. But I did find McAuliffe’s campaign to be flawed – a bit too complacent and elitist in style. It did appear to be a situation of the entire statewide slate directly benefiting from the gubernatorial vote.

As a modest contributor to McAuliffe’s campaign, I did receive his thank you note after he lost. In the note, he very diplomatically said “This campaign would not have been possible without our incredible team of grassroots supporters – and that includes you, Katherine.” (Well, let me think about that. I was overseas for most of the campaign.) “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said – and continued by complimenting “The doors you knocked, the calls you made, and the dollars you chipped in” – all of which supposedly “made all the difference.”  And then, in a separate paragraph, he listed what “we must protect” – Virginia’s “great” public schools…, our students…., “affordable” health care coverage,…raising the minimum wage “faster”, and paid leave “so working families have a fighting shot”. He also listed voting rights, a woman’s right to choose, and, above all else, our democracy.  Hmmmm.

An excellent analysis of how his campaign floundered appeared in the Washington Post shortly after his loss. The Post’s bias is clearly with the Democrats, of course, but their team of writers has written informatively about the success of the Youngkin campaign in 2021. They did dig deeply into the voting patterns of different groups to show that the suburban female vote was probably the most important factor in the 2021 election, in spite of the fact that this category still went for McAuliffe, albeit at a lower level than with his predecessor Ralph Northam in 2017. In fact, as the Post’s writers observed, the Youngkin campaign focused on all kinds of traditional Democratic voting groups with targeted messages about Youngkin’s position on issues that might appeal specifically to each group. This was apparently done without expecting major shifts but rather with calculating incremental shifts to weaken the turnout for McAuliffe in these groups.  I was impressed with this analysis and find it useful to monitor the Post’s reporting on this latest round of 2023 elections in Virginia politics.

Nonetheless, many other factors had to have worked in Youngkin’s favor for him to win. The analysis of gubernatorial election results by the Virginia guru of American politics, Larry Sabbato at the University of Virginia put more emphasis on turn-out differences rather than any significant shifts in particular voting groups. In his analysis, the determining factor was what he called “disproportionate partisan mobilization.”  As his Crystal Ball reported after the 2021 election, “… county-level data show that voting patterns in the gubernatorial elections were very similar to those in the presidential election while exit poll data from Virginia show that very few Biden voters actually switched sides in the 2021 gubernatorial election. Instead, it appears that the shift in election results between 2020 and 2021 was due largely to disproportionate partisan mobilization — stronger turnout among Republican voters than among Democratic voters in the off-year election.”

One could argue, then, that the 2021 elections favored the Republicans, both by a higher proportion of Republican voters being mobilized generally and by lower proportions of Democratic voters in key groups. This would suggest, furthermore, that the white suburban female voters didn’t actually switch from Democratic to Republican but just didn’t turn out for McAuliffe at the needed level for him to win. However, the key is to combine voter turnout comparisons both with the 2020 Presidential election turnout and the 2017 gubernatorial election turnout. In the latter, the Washington Post’s analysis shows that something more than “disproportionate partisan mobilization” was clearly in the works.

The Current State of Virginia Politics

The state remains a bellwether state for the future of American democracy.  Both of Virginia’s US Senators are Democrats. Mark Warner was comfortably re-elected for a third six-year term in 2020; and Tim Kaine is running for re-election to his third term in 2024. Whether these two will ultimately have successors with comparable appeal may be a concern down the road, but it is unlikely that the Republicans will have anyone in a position to challenge Senator Kaine in 2024 – other than Governor Youngkin himself.  But he is seen as more likely to be waiting until Senator Warner’s term expires in 2026 – while also very much involved in flirting with a Presidential race in 2024.  What matters in the 2023 elections, then, is how strong a pull he can be for the Republican candidates – and what strategy he follows to pitch the Republican position.

Before delving into the 2023 scene, it is worthwhile mentioning its further implications for 2024, when Virginia will be voting for President and Vice President, one of Virginia’s US Senators (Tim Kaine, as already noted) and eleven members of the US House of Representatives. Without going into the history of redistricting for the US House of Representatives, the state has produced an interesting mix at the Congressional level. The 2022 cycle did see newly redrawn districts, and it did seem to have an effect on the mix.  Six of the eleven Congressional districts currently have Democratic representatives. This may be down from the seven who were elected as Democrats in 2020 and 2018.

In 2016, however, it had been a 7 to 4 majority in favor of the Republicans, indicative of the way that Dixiecrats had moved into the Republican Party over the years.  But then, there has a clear shift to Democrats in 2018 – in part because of popular reaction against Trump.  Essentially, this shift reflects a relatively even urban/rural (i.e. Democratic/Republican) divide in the Congressional delegation, although one could argue that at least one of these Congressional seats also swings back and forth over military policy.  And the fact that Trump seems to have transformed the Republican Party in his populist image does have a spillover effect in Virginia, even if Governor Youngkin conveys a more traditional form of Republicanism.  The question, looking to 2024, is whether this newer shift towards the Republican Party in Virginia is a Trump phenomenon or something different and more typically Republican.

State legislative districts, it must be noted, have also gone through a similar redistricting process, for both the lower House) of Delegates and the upper Senate, effective for the latest election cycle. The latest 2021 divide in the House gave a narrow majority to the Republicans, while the latest 2019 divide in the Senate gave a narrow majority to the Democrats. The redistricting as applied to the 2023 elections, however, has been so substantial that many incumbents either opted not to run for re-election or were defeated in primaries. The outcome of the 2023 elections in Virginia will therefore produce a significantly different legislature because there are so many “open” seats.  This is incentive enough to be following these state legislative elections in Virginia. 

One might argue that Virginia is well established as a functioning democracy in spite of the turbulence of Trump’s disruption of the Republican Party. Governor Youngkin is one of those potential challengers to a Trump candidacy for the 2024 Presidential election who could use his Virginia base to his advantage. But Trump’s personalized destruction of the institutional basis of the Republican Party has made this a doubtful outcome. No signals yet emanate from Governor Youngkin to unseat Trump’s demagoguery among Republicans. But he is actively mobilizing a substantial campaign chest for the state legislative elections this year, with an eye to their potential to strengthen his appeal nationally.

On top of the possibility of big changes in both the House and Senate for the future of Virginia, there is this additional Youngkin interest in using the outcome for the bigger picture.  Does this alter the political dynamics, above and beyond a process of fair and open competition? This makes for the state legislative elections in 2023 especially significant for our concerns about democracy.

This marks the first in an intended series of commentaries on what is happening in Virginia politically – and its bearing on politics (and democracy) nationally.  In addition to the sources mentioned in this initial commentary (The Washington Post, Larry Sabbato’s Crystal Ball and the UVA Center for Politics), I will be incorporating news, data and analysis from Five-Thirty-Eight, Electoral-Vote, Ballotpedia, Split-Ticket, Politico and the New York Times for national news on Virginia. And I have added a series of localized sources to follow:  the Virginia Public Access Project, but also The Virginian-Pilot, VA News and Wavy, among others.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply