By Stewart Shoemaker
Virginia most often earns the title of a “purple” state, it being an interesting admixture of extremely rural, sparsely populated, and reliably conservative districts in its central and western portions, with a dash of dark blue covering the densely populated, highly educated, and ultra-wealthy suburbs that line the outskirts of our nation’s capital.
Despite being home to an incumbent Republican governor and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia has trended to the left in recent major elections, including Obama’s notable victory in 2012. This leftward slide is largely explained by demographic shifts in Virginia’s population, and Terry McAuliffe simply surfed this demographic wave to victory in last Tuesday’s Gubernatorial race. For a more detailed analysis on this very issue see the Atlantic’s article on the matter here.
Beyond demographics, McAuliffe’s electoral chances benefitted from the nature of his opposition: Sodomy-hating Ken Cuccinelli and the Reverend E.W. Jackson, who once profoundly proclaimed that Obamacare is worse than chattel slavery and that gays are possessed by the devil. Such extreme candidates are not formidable opponents, no matter the demographic change, and yet McAuliffe could muster only a narrow victory over these two hardline conservatives.
This unconvincing victory begs the question: if a purple Virginia is rapidly transforming to blue, how could the race have been so close?
The answer, while not a refutation of the notion of a nearly-blue Virginia, still gives Democrats significant reasons to worry. McAuliffe, the former head of the DNC, is immensely unpopular, even among his fellow Democrats. His recently penned memoir paints the portrait of a man who nearly missed the birth of his first daughter to attend a Democratic fundraiser and who was kicked out of the labor unit during the birth of another child following a heated argument with the attending physician regarding Clinton’s healthcare plan. Had it not been for his somehow even less like-able opponents, McAuliffe would almost certainly be sitting at home in Fairfax County today, rather than heading to the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond.
Herein lies the main problem for Democrats in Virginia. McAuliffe, universally unlikable as he is, was the only candidate to enter the Democratic primary. On its face, this may not seem like a terribly troubling issue, given the changing demographics of the state, as I cited above. But reducing electoral politics to mere political demography would be a fool’s errand for the Democrats in Virginia.
Look no further than the Gubernatorial race in New Jersey for evidence of the failure of demographics to guarantee electoral victory. When an exceptional politician like Chris Christie steps into the mix, traditional political mantras fall by the wayside. Replace Cuccinelli with a gregarious, moderate Republican, and Virginia’s identity as a blue state quickly evaporates. For the Democratic party to cultivate and bolster its support in the Commonwealth, it must find better politicians to run for public office.