THERE’S an old saying that there is not much one can learn from the second kick of a mule. In Virginia’s 2018 Senate race, the commonwealth’s voters provided the Republican Party of Virginia with its ninth mule kick in a row.
U.S. Senator Tim’s Kaine’s 14-point victory margin on Nov. 6 marked the ninth consecutive statewide election in which the Republican Party has come up short: Democrats won all three elections for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general in both 2013 and 2017, as well as the U.S. Senate races of 2012, 2014 and 2018.
To make matters worse, the party suffered a net loss of 15 seats in House of Delegates races last year as suburban voters turned decisively away from the nativist and combative appeals of President Trump and Republicans running for statewide offices.
The GOP’s control of the legislature is precarious, with a 51-49 margin in the House and a 21-19 margin in the state Senate, with new elections for all legislative seats a year away.
To make matters still worse for Republicans, the redistricting that will take place after the 2020 Census is likely to shift two House of Delegate seats and a Senate seat from rural areas to northern Virginia, where Democrats now routinely win by double-digit margins.
The Richmond area and Hampton Roads, two other areas of increased Democratic strength, will also gain representation in 2021 as rural influence continues to decline.
To put it simply, the party cannot do well statewide by acting as if the Virginia electorate of 2018 is the Virginia electorate of a quarter century ago, when voters elected the partisan warrior George Allen governor.
The first attached cartogram colors blue the counties and cities where the Democratic Kaine won, and red for the areas the Republican Corey Stewart won. It conveys the depth of the Republican problem. (Darker shades of each color mark more one-sided vote totals).
Unlike a traditional map, where the sizes of counties represent the number of acres they contain, a cartogram adjusts the sizes of counties and cities to correspond to the number of votes cast there. Remember, acres do not vote; people do.
The result looks like a pair of scissors, as the cities and counties of northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Richmond area swell in size to represent their large political importance in statewide elections.
The huge swath of conservative red that marks the Republican preferences of southwestern Virginia and the Interstate 81 corridor, which look so dominant on a traditional map, shrink as the cartogram reshapes those largely rural counties in response to their smaller populations.
The second attached cartogram demonstrates how fast Republican fortunes in the state are declining. When one compares Tim Kaine’s performance across the state with that of Gov. Ralph Northam’s 9-point victory a year ago, there are Democratic gains nearly everywhere.
Even in rural areas where Republicans routinely get two-thirds of the vote, enthusiasm for a candidate such as Stewart is lower than for previous Republican candidates.
The dark blue areas represent a large increase in the Democratic vote share compared with a year ago, while lighter blue areas mark smaller Democratic gains. Notice the absence of red on the map? That means that the Republican Party is winning by less—or losing by more—everywhere.
Locally, the reliable red counties surrounding Fredericksburg do not look so reliable for the GOP any more. Kaine won Stafford by a 51 percent to 47 percent margin, and came close to winning Spotsylvania as well, losing it to Stewart by a 51-47 margin.
So what are Republicans to do? The answer is simple: adjust to a changing commonwealth by changing their message.
To restore its competitive edge, the party needs to sound more like former Senator John Warner and less like Corey Stewart. In today’s Virginia—and even more so in tomorrow’s commonwealth—economic, traffic and education concerns are likely to fare far better than bashing immigrants, focusing on abortion and emphasizing the protection of Confederate statues.
The willingness of many Republicans in the House of Delegates to support a Medicaid expansion plan last spring suggests that some of the party’s members recognize that Republicans need to adapt to a changing Virginia.
Will the highly partisan Republican primary voters get the message that the party needs to retool? Or would they prefer another mule kick?
Virginia will see in its next round of elections, now less than a year away.
Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Stephen Hanna is professor of geography at UMW.