Democrats’ sweep of Virginia shows the state is moving beyond its Confederate past

In its first election since Trump became president, Virginia gave Democrats a sweeping victory. This one-time swing state and former Confederate capital elected Democrats in all three statewide races – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a mild-mannered physician from Virginia’s eastern shore, led the ticket with a platform focused on women’s reproductive rights, climate change and racial justice. He defeated Republican Ed Gillespie with just under 54 percent of the vote.

Northam saw particularly strong support from a diverse population of suburban voters in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, where Virginia’s Confederate history figures less prominently than in the state’s more rural and southern parts. Black voters in Tidewater and Richmond, the capital, also rallied around Northam.

The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, drew his base from the same areas. He beat out Republican House of Delegates member Jill Vogel, 53 percent to 47 percent. Fairfax will be the first black politician to hold statewide office in Virginia since former Gov. Douglas Wilder became lieutenant governor in 1985.

Fairfax, who has never held elected office, is now in a position to follow the path of Governor-elect Northam and seven other Virginia lieutenant governors who’ve risen to the state’s highest office. If he were to do so, he would become only the second African-American ever to lead Virginia.

Race is never an afterthought in southern politics. And in Virginia’s election, it was a central factor. As a political analyst who focuses on race, I interpret this Democratic triumph as a sign that the Old Dominion has entered a new era – one characterized by definite urban-rural divisions.

Justin Fairfax will be just the second black man to hold statewide office in Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy. Cliff Owen/Reuters

City vs. country

In modern Virginia, urban areas have considerable racial and ethnic diversity, especially in northern Virginia. These cities vote overwhelmingly democratic.

Republican Ed Gillespie, a Washington lobbyist who almost defeated incumbent senator Mark Warner in 2014, knows this. So he ran a campaign clearly aimed at appealing to the Trump base throughout rural Virginia.

Gillespie favored retaining statues of Confederate icons like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, a particularly hot-button issue in Virginia since alt-right, pro-Confederacy protesters killed one person in Charlottesville in August.

Gillespie also attacked Northam on Gov. McAuliffe’s policy of restoring the voting rights of former felons, and he opposed sanctuary cities. Gillespie ran television ads implying that immigrants would join violent gangs like MS-13, which did not play well in liberal urban areas.

[embedded content] Anti-immigrant campaign ads did not play well in Virginia’s liberal cities.
As a result, Northam actually fared better in northern Virginia suburbs – a key population center – than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Arlington voters gave Northam 80 percent, Fairfax 67 percent, Loudoun 59 percent and Prince William 61 percent.