It took a while, but it was the result we expected. After a brutal election season that culminated in a football Sunday featuring more political attack ads than beer commercials, we Virginians finally have a new governor. Terry McAuliffe defeated Ken Cuccinelli last night by a slim margin. A look at the electoral map shows the state as a sea of red with scattered blue patches in the southeast and a cap of cerulean in the north.
Northern Virginia decided it was so turned off by Cuccinelli’s social policies that it elected a loudmouthed Clintonian bagman nicknamed “The Macker” who boosted his job-creator credentials by setting up a Potemkin Village hybrid car company and who abandoned his wife in the delivery room to attend a Washington Post soiree. McAuliffe was a candidate only a D.C. insider could love, and these days Virginia is bulging with D.C. insiders.
It’s a curious change for the Old Dominion. Virginia is the state of Jefferson and Madison, Patrick Henry and George Mason, where Anti-Federalists who believed the Constitution allowed too much federal power found a significant beachhead. The core of its early economy was the tobacco plantation cultivated by slaves—culturally foreign to Yankees who often regarded the state with suspicion or scorn. “In Virginia, all geese are swans,” John Adams once said, an opinion shared by many of his fellow New Englanders. By the mid-1800s, those differences would reach irreconcilable levels and Virginia would become the eighth state to secede from the Union. Richmond was later named the capital of the Confederacy.
Today’s Northern Virginia is a Washington satellite existing on top of a Confederate past. Twenty-somethings employed by federal agencies cram into apartment buildings on the Jefferson Davis Highway. High-powered D.C. operatives who want a taste of country living move to Manassas, where General Stonewall Jackson drove back the Union army in 1861. Political nonprofits share a block with General Robert E. Lee’s preserved childhood home in Old Town Alexandria.
This is The Macker’s Virginia, where you’re more likely to hear bureaucratese than a southern accent. Arlington County, which borders D.C., saw its population increase 6.5 percent between 2010 and 2012. Nearby Fairfax County grew by 3.4 percent, Loudon County shot up 7.9 percent, and Prince William County increased 7 percent, all in a state where the average population growth was 2.3 percent. Many of these new Virginians are young, relatively liberal, and, most importantly, work in the vast solar system surrounding the federal government.
Virginia has sent plenty of Democrats to the governor’s mansion and Congress before, but none as offensive to the senses as Terry McAuliffe. Mark Warner, the former Democratic senator and governor, ran as a moderate and pledged not to raise taxes. Jim Webb, the one-term senator, ran on a robustly pro-military platform. Even Tim Kaine, the uncharismatic former governor who always had a whiff of the technocratic about him, talked up his Catholic faith and pledged not to alter the state death penalty. Virginia has long been awash in federal dollars, thanks to D.C. and the state's many military facilities. But culturally it was always southern, and Democrats ran as such.
As recently as 2009, The Macker was toxic in Virginia, trounced in the Democratic gubernatorial primary by political unknown Creigh Deeds. Deeds, born in Richmond and raised downstate, showed the reluctance of state Democrats to align themselves with the fortunes of the city to the north. Four years later, the dynamic has shifted. You could scour K Street with a Geiger counter for months without finding a Democrat as shamelessly, obnoxiously Washington as Terry McAuliffe. This is the first gubernatorial election where culturally distinct Northern Virginia elected one of its own.
Ken Cuccinelli, born in New Jersey but unquestionably more of a Virginian than The Macker, couldn’t catch a break. According to Real Clear Politics, the last time Cuccinelli led in a poll was in early July. The Virginia attorney general has taken some hard-line stances, though his positions aren’t all that different from those of Governor Bob McDonnell, who led the statewide GOP ticket to decisive victory in 2009.
There are other factors that made Cuccinelli’s life difficult. Robert Sarvis, the third-party libertarian candidate, siphoned off some Republican votes. McAuliffe tugged every one of his fundraising strings and severely outraised Cuccinelli. The scandal-plagued McDonnell probably tainted the GOP a little. Cuccinelli had some good luck too, most helpfully from the recent crumbling of Obamacare which helped him close the gap.
But the real story of this election is Virginia’s changing identity. Local radio stations have started referring to the greater Washington area as the DMV, the initials of the District and its satellite states, and, appropriately enough, a stultifyingly incompetent government agency. Virginia’s identity is caught in a tug of war between the DMV and the Old Dominion—and the DMV looks to be winning. Just as great swaths of Connecticut have fallen under the influence of nearby New York City, so too is Virginia gravitating towards its proximate metropolis.
It’s The Macker’s state now. The good, gentle people of rural Virginia can’t keep up with rampaging government.
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