The Democratic Party in Virginia is having a remarkable run of victories — so much so that many observers today count the Old Dominion a solid blue (Democratic) state. No Republican candidate running statewide has won an election here since 2009, and Virginia is widely considered an easy win for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner is projected to easily hold his seat.
Modern political history suggests a more cautious projection of the partisan competition in the state may be in order. Indeed, we’ve been here before — declarations of a major and long-lasting partisan shifts that were not sustained. Consider the following:
Virginia once was a bastion of the old “Solid South,” meaning one-party, Democratic-dominated. To many people, it was inconceivable that Virginia would ever shed its Democratic dominance. Yet by the 1990s, Virginia looked very Republican, with consecutive gubernatorial elections, two U.S. Senate seats, and party control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Virginia appeared to be a part of the emerging solid Republican-dominated South.
The new millennium ushered in the beginning of yet another partisan shift, with the Democrats winning statewide again — and again and again, with only the 2009 gubernatorial election cycle standing as an aberration. After that, it’s been all one political party winning the big prizes in Virginia.
These partisan shifts lack permanency, and Virginia defies easy categorization.
In the 1980s Reagan-Bush era, Democrats in Virginia won all three gubernatorial elections as well as all of the races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. During the 1990s Bill Clinton era, the GOP marched to dominance of state politics, winning gubernatorial races in 1993 and 1997 and then taking control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
But with Mark Warner’s gubernatorial win in 2001, yet another shift in partisan fortunes began, and the Democrats became the dominant party, winning the governorship in 2005, 2013, and 2017; and U.S. Senate races in 2006, 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2018. For many, the conclusion that Virginia was trending blue was solidified by the 2008 Democratic win for president in the state, for the first time since 1964.
Given this history, could a Republican resurgence in Virginia at some point be in the cards, perhaps even soon? With all the focus now on the national elections, and the projections that Democrats will hold a U.S. Senate seat as well as deliver 13 electors to Joe Biden, it is easy to lose sight of the 2021 off-year gubernatorial cycle and its potential to initiate yet another partisan swing in Virginia.
Since 1977, only once has the party in the White House won the gubernatorial election in Virginia. That was the 2013 squeaker election of Terry McAuliffe over a deeply flawed GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli. The unusual off-year election cycle in Virginia makes the party in control of the White House vulnerable to the same phenomenon that results in the “midterm correction”: the tendency of the president’s party to lose a substantial number of House seats in the midterm elections. The correction just starts to happen in Virginia one year early.
That suggests a GOP advantage here going into 2021, but only if President Trump loses re-election — not a certainty. Some may find irony that a GOP resurgence in Virginia depends on a Republican president losing. But with Trump re-elected, there is no “correction” or GOP advantage in Virginia in 2021 — indeed, Virginia voters’ disaffection with the GOP likely magnifies.
Also, if the president loses, it is an opportunity for a party reset that can win back many Virginians turned off by Trump’s brand of Republicanism. Much of the problem of the Virginia GOP is self-inflicted — the embrace of this president and the continual nominations of candidates so far outside the mainstream that swing voters turn out for Democrats and progressive voters become hyper-motivated, as has happened in Virginia during the Trump era.
If the Virginia GOP looks to neighboring Maryland, it can find a model for its future success. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has won the favor of a Democratic-dominated state with mainstream pre-Trump-era conservatism and competent leadership. He may be the nation’s most popular governor right now. If Republicans can achieve that in a truly blue state, they surely have a shot in Virginia.
Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Among his latest books is “The South and the Transformation of US Politics” (Oxford University Press, 2019).
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