In the battle for a changing Virginia, Democrats may be changing faster than Republicans.

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 31 2008 6:16 PM

Bless Their Hearts

In the battle for a changing Virginia, Democrats may be changing faster than Republicans.

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For the state Republican Party, this influx couldn't have come at a worse time—because while the state's population is becoming lessconservative socially, the party has become more so. The reason former Gov. James Gilmore is losing in his Senate race against former Gov. Mark Warner may have something to do with Gilmore's uncompromising stances on social issues, including passing a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions, a partial-birth abortion ban, and his intervention in the Terry Schiavo drama. Sabato says the blue trend started in the early '90s and explains the successes of Democrats like Warner (who used NASCAR and bluegrass to make inroads in rural Virginia), current Gov. Tim Kaine, and Sen. Jim Webb.

Amid all this change, it's all too easy to fall prey to geographic clichés about rusted-out tractors on abandoned farms in Southside Virginia and latte-sipping soccer moms in traffic jams in the Pottery Barn suburbs of Washington, D.C. Gibson, the former reporter, cautions against characterizing a blue Northern Virginia as over-running the red one (what McCain adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer famously called the "real Virginia," which is "more Southern in nature"). Gibson points to Danville, a city that has replaced jobs lost overseas with high-tech jobs, connecting the former Southern tobacco town directly to the high-tech corridor near Washington. And quirky Nelson County, to the south, is full of small arts communities and former hippie enclaves that may or may not be real—but they definitely aren't Arlington.

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A visit to the Obama campaign headquarters in Charlottesville (there is another office at the University of Virginia) yields more proof that this battle for the soul of Virginia isn't a North/South thing. Sarah El Amin is the campaign's regional field director, and she says the Obama campaign doesn't believe that winning the election requires "pumping out the vote in Northern Virginia" and ignoring the rest of the state. The campaign has put field offices in the most rural places in northwestern Virginia precisely because the campaign was unwilling to accept all the old assumptions. "The clichés about military or Christian or rural communities fail to affect our perception of whether he can win there."

Virginia and Colorado have both been called the Ground Zero of the evangelical movement. Not coincidentally, perhaps, both are swing states this year. 

Of course, there are other contested races in Virginia—and they, too, reflect the reality of a changing state. In one of the most fascinating of Virginia's congressional races, in the 5th District, Republican incumbent Virgil Goode ran ads trashing his Democratic opponent, Tom Perriello, for being a "New York Lawyer" with "Liberal New York Policies." (Perriello was born in Virginia's Albemarle County.) This echoes some of Gov. Sarah Palin's anxieties about separating out the "real America" and "pro-America" areas of this great nation.

This continued insistence that Virginians who were born (or, like Periello, merely educated) elsewhere are not "real Virginians" reflects a very real, if fading, grudge. "Virginia Republicans nurse a deep, deep resentment toward Northern Virginia," says Sabato. "They see these people as having taken their state away." The problem, he says, is that it's "tough to win somebody's vote when you're insulting them."

And sometimes Virginia Republicans go even further: They say stupid things without even bothering to add an insult. Think, for instance, of former Sen. George Allen, who pretty much chewed off his own political right arm in 2006 by calling a campaign volunteer for his opponent macaca on camera. Or Rep. Virgil Goode, who made national news in 2006 when he excoriated Rep. Keith Ellison for asking to be sworn in to office on the Quran. Or John McCain's brother Joe, who called Arlington and Alexandria "communist country" earlier this month. And state GOP Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick,  who compared Obama to Osama Bin Laden a few weeks back.

Any real Virginian knows that there is a proper way to say such things. If you truly feel the need to insult prospective voters, you simply say, "You're nothing but a communist-loving, terrorist-sympathizing New Yorker. Bless your heart."

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