It’s hard to believe, but the rebirth of the Republican party in Virginia may be happening in the unlikeliest of places: the liberal bastion of Northern Virginia.
Take what happened last week in Arlington, Northern Virginia’s unofficial capital. For the last 15 years, the county government has been controlled entirely by Democrats. Arlington has Democratic representation at the state and federal level, and it hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1980. If you were looking for the perfect cross-section of the Obama-era Democratic coalition, you could find it in what some half-jokingly call the People’s Republic of Arlington. This inner suburb of Washington is a mix of college-educated young people, Hispanics, single women, federal employees, African Americans, wealthy white liberals, recent immigrants, and environmentally conscious greenies. It’s one of the wealthiest counties in the country and one of the most diverse in Virginia. It’s also the kind of place where public officials believe strongly in the transformative power of community gardens.
So it was big news on April 8 when a Republican won a special election for a vacant county board seat. Not only did John Vihstadt, a Washington lawyer and Arlington resident since 1981, win, he did so with 57 percent support. Okay, technically, Vihstadt ran as an independent. But the 61-year-old says he made little attempt to hide his personal party affiliation during the campaign.
“I really consider myself a big-tent Republican,” Vihstadt tells me. He’s not a social conservative or a member of the Tea Party, and he says he cares chiefly about local fiscal concerns. He actively campaigned against some of the county’s massive spending projects, like a $1 million bus stop, a nine-figure streetcar proposal, and an $80 million aquatic center. But Vihstadt also spoke about his longstanding ties to the community, including service on a number of civic boards and the PTA. On his campaign website’s biography page, he bragged that his daily commute includes a combination of carpooling, mass transit, and walking. A Republican, sure, but a Republican Arlingtonians could support.
Vihstadt cautions that his is a unique example: a special election based on local quality-of-life issues. Besides, he’s got another election to win in November, when loyal Democratic voters will be turning out in bigger numbers.
The truth is, the Virginia GOP is in a real mess, thanks in large part to Northern Virginia’s steady turn away from the party. The Republican middle-class families that built postwar Northern Virginia have been replaced by wealthier government consultants, twentysomethings living in highrise apartment buildings, and Asian and Hispanic immigrants—all of whom favor the Democrats. A booming technology industry and the ever-growing federal government mean the region is more populous than ever before; it’s also less instinctively conservative. To have a reasonable chance at winning statewide these days, a Republican candidate has at the very least to split the vote in the Northern Virginia counties of Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun. In 2009, Bob McDonnell did better than that—61 percent in Loudoun and 59 in Prince William—to win his gubernatorial race handily. Four years later, Ken Cuccinelli fell below 50 in Loudoun and Prince William and was blown out in Fairfax on his way to a three-point loss to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
But Republicans could take a valuable lesson from the Vihstadt victory. Tom Davis, the former Republican congressman from Fairfax County, says the GOP has been too bogged down in ideological purity tests that result in candidates too conservative for Northern Virginia. The party, Davis says, needs to learn to “run candidates that fit the districts.”
You could call that the Vihstadt rule, and Pat Mullins, chairman of the Virginia GOP, assures me that his party will be following it. “There are going to be very strong candidates in Northern Virginia,” says Mullins.
One of them may be Barbara Comstock. A state delegate and onetime congressional aide, Comstock is running in a crowded, party-organized “firehouse” primary on April 26 for the House seat being vacated by her former boss, retiring Republican Frank Wolf. The district, which Wolf has held since 1981, stretches from the West Virginia border to the outer Washington suburbs in Loudoun and parts of Prince William and Fairfax.