The downtown in Leesburg, Virginia, offers a portrait of attachment to the past. Federal-style buildings line the streets, and the courthouse square features both a plaque commemorating a reading in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence and a statue honoring Confederate soldiers.
The picture is misleading.
A more accurate rendering reveals a downtown that gives way to suburban growth that has made Loudoun County the wealthiest in the U.S. Technology companies, many with ties to the federal government, and other businesses fueled by the development have stoked an economy attracting higher educated workers and minority populations that have soared since 1990 -- a fivefold increase of Hispanics and seven times the number of Asians.
Located 40 miles from Washington, D.C, Loudoun County is now considered by White House officials to be one of the best bellwethers for presidential elections. President Barack Obama won there in 2008, the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and again in 2012, victories that signaled how shifting economic and population trends are refashioning the politics of Virginia and the nation.
“We are seeing a solidly red state turn blue,” said Dustin Cable, a demographer at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service in Charlottesville. “Virginia is really ground zero for a lot of what we see at the national level.”
The forces of change in Virginia vary from that in other states where shifting partisan preferences are driven by Hispanic population growth. That’s because the Old Dominion is also seeing a rise in Asian voters and in the number of residents with masters or doctorate degrees. In the recent presidential and U.S. Senate races in the state, Democrats also have been successful in winning over suburban independent women and younger voters in the suburbs outside of Washington.
Democrats have won because of the combination of the demographic changes and the policy positions taken by Republicans on issues such as immigration and abortion rights.
“It’s not just the change in demographics, it is the changing issue matrix the party has decided to embrace,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who represented counties in northern Virginia. “The social and cultural agenda of the party does not play to these educated people.”
On abortion, the state legislature stirred a national uproar in 2012 before amending a proposal that would have required doctors to do an invasive transvaginal ultrasound before the procedure.
“If we are going to be the party of fetal ultrasound, then we are going to have problems,” said Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, a Republican, in an interview in his office in the capital of Richmond.
Republicans still control the state-level politics, holding majorities in the legislature along with several county boards, including all nine members in Loudoun County.
That power will be tested in November in the governor’s race between Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, and Terry McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. A Quinnipiac University poll released May 16 showed McAuliffe with a lead of 43 percentage points to 38 percentage points.
Democrats have won seven of 10 of the top races -- president, governor or U.S. Senator -- since 2001.
Bolling, who said his party is becoming “too ideological” and stayed out the governor’s race because of that, said his partisan allies are on the wrong side of change.
“One of the challenges the Republican Party faces in Virginia and a lot of other swing states is how do we remain a conservative party but still be able to appeal to these changing demographic patterns,” Bolling said.
“I am a Republican. I am very concerned about the direction of the Republican Party but I believe in the Republican Party. But I’m not a happy Republican,” he said.
Growth among minorities is forecast to continue in Loudoun, to 16.7 percent by 2020 from 2.5 percent in 1990, according to University of Virginia demographers. In adjacent Prince William County, the numbers rise to almost 24.3 percent from 4.5 percent during the same period. The Asian population in Loudoun is expected to rise to 17 percent in 2020 from 2.3 percent in 1990; in Prince William, to 9 percent from 2.9 percent.
“Very recently, we have seen a suburbanization of Hispanics and Hispanic population growth,” Cable said. “The GOP might have a better chance of appealing to these groups in the future, but in the next four years to eight years it is going to benefit the Democratic Party more.”
Bolling said his colleagues have done a poor job appealing to these emerging voters, and instead have retreated into a party where “you are persona non grata unless you agree with them 100 percent of the way, 100 percent of the time. We’ve got to move beyond that.”
He declined a gubernatorial run after the state party decided to nominate its candidate at a convention rather than in a primary, ensuring that its most ideological partisans dominated the process.
“The organizational structure was taken over by the Tea Party groups and Ron Paul types. They have taken the party in a direction that is very troubling to me,” said Bolling, in a reference to the former Texas U.S. House representative who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012.
Still, Bolling said, if turnout matches historical averages for a governor’s race, Cuccinelli has a good chance of winning. In 2012, 3.8 million votes were cast in the presidential race, compared to 1.98 million in the last governor’s race, in 2009.
If it approaches the 75 percent level of a presidential year, Bolling said, “McAuliffe would win in a landslide.”
The Virginia calendar for electing its statewide officials in odd-numbered years that virtually ensures lower turnout than in presidential or midterm elections was a product of the Democratic organization put together by former governor and U.S. Senator Harry Byrd, who was known for saying his state should offer “massive resistance” to the desegregation of public schools.
Such themes as attacking government spending, which Republicans have used to win over voters elsewhere, don’t resonate as much in northern Virginia because both private and public employers rely on federal spending. So far, mandatory budget cuts that began this year have done little to harm the local economy.
“It is doing remarkably well in spite of the federal slowdown,” said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at Fairfax, Virginia-based George Mason University. “The suburbs are holding up better than I would have anticipated.”
Fuller said that in the eight Virginia counties closest to Washington, the unemployment rate is 4 percent, compared to 7.5 percent nationally. Among those eight counties, five are ranked in the top 10 wealthiest in the U.S.
In Loudoun, the median home price in May was $425,000, up 5 percent from a year ago, according to Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. The county, which is home to Dulles International Airport, is also a draw for such technology companies as Orbital Sciences Corp., Raytheon Co. and AOL Inc. Obama carried Loudoun over Republican Mitt Romney, 52 percent to 47 percent.
Loudoun and the other seven jurisdictions close to Washington all are now trending Democratic, even as the state’s more rural areas are becoming more Republican, said John McGlennon, chairman of the government department at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Loudoun’s support for Obama ran counter to the national trend that showed Romney winning among voters with incomes over $100,000, 54 percent to 44 percent, according to exit polls.
“Democrats have been growing support among those with more than a college education. The proportion of folks with post-graduate degrees in Virginia is higher than the nation as a whole. That group has moved most strongly for Democrats,” said McGlennon.
Areas such as Leesburg used to be seen as discrete communities rather than part of larger metropolitan area, and the politics were predictably Republican.
Immigrants from a generation ago might have come to these communities for a job related to agriculture. Now they come to work in health care, hospitality and consumer services -- along with technology -- changing housing patterns and incomes from those who came before. They are also increasingly the target of voter registration efforts, particularly among Democrats.
Davis, who was elected to the U.S. House in 1994 and served until 2008, said he has watched Democrats gain strength in the state’s most populous region, as his own party has clung to issues he said are out of step with voters.
“The answer is great candidates can make a difference, but the party is not interested in great candidates,” he said.