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.
Despite the GOP’s longtime hold on it, the district now leans only slightly Republican (Mitt Romney won it in 2012 by just one point). Comstock boasts a conservative record: She’s pro-life, opposes Obamacare, and has fought back in the state assembly against union interests. But she also argues she’ll be a better representative of the party in the general election than her chief rival for the nomination, fellow delegate Bob Marshall. Marshall is a social conservative whose rhetoric on those issues is too strident for Northern Virginia. In 2010, for instance, he asserted that the number of children with disabilities born to women who have had an abortion has increased in recent years.
“Because when you abort the firstborn of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children,” he matter-of-factly explained at a press conference. Nominating Marshall would be a clear violation of the Vihstadt rule.
“We can be conservative, but we understand we’ve got to grow the pie here,” Comstock says. Republican primary voters seem to be agreeing. One recent poll showed Comstock leading Marshall by more than 30 points.
Republicans will have a tougher time unseating Democrat Gerry Connolly in the Fairfax-centered district next door, which is far less favorable to the GOP. Party insiders agree the favorite for the nomination and the candidate with the best chance is Suzanne Scholte, a former Capitol Hill staffer and human rights activist. As president of the nonprofit Defense Forum Foundation since 1988, Scholte has argued for strengthening national defense spending and promoted freedom and human rights in totalitarian countries like North Korea. Her work has elevated her profile within Fairfax County’s sizable Korean-American community, one of the many immigrant groups in the district that she wants to peel away from the Democratic party.
Scholte describes herself as someone who “came up in the Reagan era” and still believes Republicans can win by focusing appropriately on economic, social, and defense issues. She opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother, a position she says most Americans hold. On the trail, she’ll argue that it’s the Democrats who hold extreme views on abortion. “We need to be slamming them on this,” she says.
She calls Connolly a “partisan, bitter hack” who doesn’t represent the federal workers of the district well. She notes that he voted for the budget sequestration plan that made indiscriminate cuts to federal agencies, the military, and employee benefits. “He broke faith with the people he represents,” she says.
Tom Davis and other Northern Virginia Republicans hope Scholte and Comstock can win in November, but at the very least their candidacies could change the face of the party and help the Republican most likely to be at the top of the ticket: U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie.
Gillespie is a longtime party strategist and former Republican National Committee chairman with plenty of experience running campaigns. He’s also leading the race for the Senate nomination heading into the party’s June 7 nominating convention in Roanoke. Gillespie’s announcement in January that he would challenge incumbent Democrat Mark Warner turned more than a few heads in Washington. Suddenly Warner, a popular former governor and perceived moderate, looked vulnerable.
Gillespie points out that Warner votes with Barack Obama “97 percent of the time” and isn’t the “radical centrist” he claims to be. Like every Republican running against a sitting Democratic senator in 2014, he’ll make the case that Warner was the deciding vote on Obamacare. Gillespie promises to bring a strong donor base and organizational infrastructure. It may also help that Gillespie lives in Northern Virginia, which he suggests gives him a nuanced understanding of how to run a campaign across a diverse state. It’s not enough simply to run against a bad economy. “Northern Virginia isn’t feeling the same kind of economic pain as in Southwest Virginia, but there is some economic anxiety” associated with the high cost of living there, he says.
Faced with a middling economy, Democrats have succeeded in driving up their margins in Northern Virginia in particular by casting Republicans like Mitt Romney and Ken Cuccinelli as too extreme on issues like abortion and birth control. The pro-life Gillespie claims he’s willing to fight back against “war on women” rhetoric. “You can’t let charges go unanswered,” he says. Having women like Barbara Comstock and Suzanne Scholte running down-ticket couldn’t hurt. Nor does the renewed sense among Republicans that after more than a decade of frustration in Northern Virginia, the party is beginning to adapt to reality.
“I think Republicans are hungry to win again,” says Gillespie.
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.