The Magazine

Ground Zero for the GOP

The first rematch of the Obama era will be the Virginia governor's race this fall.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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Republicans' 2008 election losses have spawned a spate of self-reflection. Was it just President Bush and the economy? Was it too much religion or ineffective candidates? Was opposition to immigration reform the death knell with minorities, or did Republicans fail to explain tried and true conservative principles? The theoretical argument rages among media elites and Beltway insiders, but the impact of Republicans' declining fortunes is more vivid--and the test of their ability to battle back more concrete--just a few miles south of Washington D.C. in the suburbs of Northern Virginia.

Tom Davis spent 14 years on Fairfax County's board of supervisors and then 14 more in Congress. He hasn't had many leisurely Saturday mornings in the last few decades, with all the civic events and campaign mixers to attend. But on a rainy Saturday, he and his wife, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, were relaxing in their living room, their two small white dogs scampering about. They are both officially retired (albeit not entirely voluntarily and perhaps not permanently) from politics--she after failing to be reelected to her Virginia state senate seat in 2007 and he after retirement from the House last year.

It is not clear whether Davis is talking personally when he explains that in the George W. Bush era, Virginia Republicans were often "just collateral damage." The only way for voters to vote against Bush in midterm elections was to vote against Republicans in House, Senate, and state races. "It's our own fault. The party branding is what killed us."

The Davises' departure from politics, both replaced by Democrats, is symptomatic of the declining fortunes of the Republican party in Virginia. Less than a decade ago, Virginia had a Republican governor, two Republican senators, a majority Republican congressional delegation, and Republican control in both houses of the state legislature. Virginians voted Republican in every presidential election from 1964 to 2004. Now, only five of eleven House seats are held by Republicans, while both Senate seats, the governorship, and the state senate are in Democratic hands. Barack Obama carried Virginia 53-46 percent in November.

Davis reels off the list of reasons for the GOP's decline in Virginia, and across the country: "A very unpopular war fueled the left," an unpopular president, and a huge money disparity (four to one in favor of the Democrats in Virginia, he says). An influx of minorities and urban professionals into Virginia was another problem because the Republican "message doesn't address or invite the newcomers." "Democrats have the ball," he says. "Republicans have to hope they fumble. But we're not ready to pounce on the fumble." Republicans, he contends, are in danger of approaching Whig status, "talking about issues less and less relevant" to the average voter.

Although Davis is blunt about the state party (a "closed shop," he says, which doesn't promote viable candidates), he is not down on its prospects. Given the economy and the spending disadvantage in Virginia in 2008, he says, "It should have been a lot worse given the atmospherics. There is a lot of hope there." He says simply, "We have to decide if we want to be a winning coalition." Republicans have continued their hold on rural and religious voters in the southern and western portions of the state, but have fallen on hard times in the affluent (and more liberal) suburbs of Northern Virginia. They have had trouble nominating candidates that can appeal in both parts of the state. As more liberal voters flooded into Virginia over the last decade, the electoral math just grew more challenging for Republicans.

Larry J. Sabato, veteran political observer at the University of Virginia, sees the GOP's predicament in similar terms:

It's the combination of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, college communities, black rural counties, and highly educated populations in old and new suburbs that is proving lethal to the GOP in Virginia. This is the 53 percent majority for Obama we saw on Election Day. This majority is growing rather than declining with time. The various constituent parts of this majority coalition have discovered one another, and they appear pleased with the alliance. The outsiders for so much of Virginia's history have become the insiders, and they like it.

The danger is that the damage may persist, Sabato explains. "The new voters, first-time voters, and young voters may be lost to the GOP for a lifetime. In American history a party identification acquired early and forcefully can last a lifetime."