Virginia Turns Battleground Again as Demographics Shift

Virginia Turns Battleground Again as Suburban Demographics Shift
On the eve of the US presidential elections, Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Senator Barack Obama arrives for his final campaign rally of the 2008 presidential race in Manassas, Virginia, November 03, 2008. Photographer: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

The Asian, Hispanic, black and white faces at Barack Obama’s final 2008 rally in Virginia now form the canvas for his re-election campaign.

Obama’s seven-percentage point victory in Virginia -- the first there for any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 -- was part of a national anti-Republican tide. It also was the product of profound demographic shifts that have vaulted the Civil War battleground state into the ranks of electoral hotspots like Ohio and Florida.

“We’re a different kind of southern state,” said U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who replaced retiring Republican Tom Davis in 2008. “You look at what’s happening in the suburbs: They’re changing politically and in their complexion,” he said. “It’s going to be a very contested state for the foreseeable future.”

For his last 2008 campaign stop, Obama chose the Washington suburb of Manassas, where the first major Civil War battle in Virginia was fought in July 1861. It’s also a cultural and political boundary between the Old Dominion’s reliably Republican south and west, and the capital’s suburbs in the north, where a surge of professional workers and Asian and Hispanic immigrants is making the region more Democratic.

“The Mason-Dixon Line is moving south,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, referring to the historic demarcation line that forms the northern border of Maryland. For about 250 years, it also defined the cultural divide between the North and the South. That’s “now about in the middle of Virginia,” he said.

Newcomer Vote

Republicans say the state of the U.S. economy will trump any demographic gains for Democrats.

“Virginians are independent-minded folks,” said Representative Robert Hurt, a Republican from a district that Obama narrowly lost to John McCain in 2008. “No hard feelings, but Obama hasn’t been able to do what he said he was going to do.”

Polls show Obama leading Romney in the state by a few percentage points. Virginia elected successive Democratic governors, Mark Warner in 2001 and Tim Kaine in 2005. Since Obama’s victory, though, Republicans won statewide races in 2009, including the governor’s mansion; a large majority of Virginia’s congressional delegation in 2010; and control of the state Senate in 2011.

Core Constituencies

Since the last election, Democratic core constituencies have gained and Republicans have lost ground. Minority and white college-graduate voters are up 1 percentage point and white, non-college voters are down 2 points over the past four years in Northern Virginia, Frey says, based on Census data. Democrats in November will be counting on these newcomers to the suburban Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and a local economy shielded from recession by federal spending.

“President Obama’s going to benefit from a lot of the trends in Virginia as long as things don’t go off the rails between now and then,” said U.S. Representative Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat.

The state reflects demographic shifts nationwide. Minority eligible voters, 80 percent of whom supported Obama in 2008, have increased by around 3 percentage points. White working-class voters, whom Obama lost by 18 points, have decreased their share by about the same amount.

Female Voters

Democrats may also have a greater opportunity with female voters. In March, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell signed a bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion, a mandate Democrats say will sour independent female voters on the Republican Party.

Republicans say it isn’t a federal issue and won’t affect the race. Democrats “wouldn’t be going down that path if they had a compelling case to make on job creation,” said Republican U.S. Representative Scott Rigell of Virginia.

Among swing states, Virginia has one of the lowest unemployment rates, at 5.9 percent in July, compared with 8.3 percent nationally. Many of its jobs depend on federal spending. Virginia is the home of the Pentagon and of defense contractors including Northrop Grumman Corp., CACI International Inc. and SAIC Inc. While Republicans hope voters will credit McDonnell for the low rate, Democrats say the president should benefit.

In ads flooding Virginia airwaves, Republican super political action committees are hammering the same themes as elsewhere in the country, attacking the president’s health-care law and blaming Democrats for the sluggish economy.

Spending Cuts

Deep federal spending cuts set for early 2013 would hit Virginia hard. As part of an agreement last year to raise the federal borrowing limit, Congress mandated $1.2 trillion in cutbacks over a decade. Half of them target defense spending.

“Virginia would be hurt more than any other state,” Moran said. The state is the most dependent on military spending, collecting $56.9 billion in 2009, according to a Bloomberg Government study.

Republicans are trying to exploit the threat, calling it an example of Obama’s failed leadership. While Congress can override the spending reductions, prospects for a deal before the election are bleak.

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