Home Virginia Politics The Long Decline of Southwest Virginia

The Long Decline of Southwest Virginia

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This is potentially the first in a series of diaries looking at the often slow, but occasionally abrupt, political changes in Virginia’s regions over the last 40 years (or so), with an eye toward understanding the trends that will take us into the next 10. I am starting with Southwest Virginia for a variety of reasons, but if the response is positive I’ll look at doing other regions

In 1982, the citizens of the 9th Congressional District (the fightin’ 9th!) elected Rick Boucher to the House of Representatives over Republican incumbent William Wampler (father of former State Senator William Wampler Jr.). Rick went on to serve 14 terms until his defeat in 2010. He had a competitive reelection in 1984, but for most of his almost three decade career he was considered a safe incumbent. His defeat in 2010 is a good bookend for the end of an era for Southwest Virginia. In this diary I am less interested in Rick’s career than I am in understanding the changes to Southwest Virginia and the 9th District over these decades, but all of this leads up to his defeat in 2010.

For the purposes of the diary I am going to generally adopt VPAP’s definition of Southwest Virginia, which is all of Virginia south and west of Craig, Roanoke, Franklin, and Patrick counties. I will also include information on the 9th, which overlaps with but is not always the same as VPAP’s definition. All numbers are taken from past copies of the National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics, unless noted otherwise.

Back in 1970, Southwest Virginia was 10.1% of the state’s population, a respectable level that put it just a few points behind today’s Richmond metropolitan area with 14.0%. Today Richmond is largely the same, at 13.9%, as the area has kept up with average statewide growth. But Southwest Virginia’s share has dwindled down to 7.2%. By my calculations based on current trend, Southwest Virginia could dip down to closer to 6.5% by 2020, giving up close to 3/4th of a House of Delegate’s seat and 1/3 of a State Senate seat as the seats have to shift to the north and east.

Consider that in 1970, before Virginia’s new redistricting could take into effect, the 9th District stretched only as far as Radford, with the city and Montgomery county in the 6th District. To the south, the 5th stretched all the way into Grayson and Carroll counties. Today, the 9th stretches all the way into Salem and Martinsville. Southwest Virginia is today too small for a Congressional district of its own, borrowing surplus population from neighboring regions.

The 9th District’s vote in the presidential elections can also give some perspective to the level of changes that have occurred.

In the 1968 election, in which George Wallace was winning over many conservative Southern Democrats, Democrat Hubert Humphrey received 37% of the vote in the 9th, exceeding his statewide total of 33%. It was his third best district in the state, behind only Northern Virginia’s 10th and the Norfolk-based 2nd. The 9th was actually Wallace’s second worse district, receiving only 16% of the vote, behind his statewide total of 24%. Only the suburbs of Northern Virginia in the 10th were worse for Wallace. Even in a difficult year for Democrats, the 9th’s Democratic base of working class and often union-affiliated coal mining communities stuck to the party.

The 9th was historically one of the strongest anti-Byrd Machine districts, with its Republican Party formed after the Civil War and strongly opposing the easterners who brought forward Jim Crow, poll taxes, and a gerrymandering that favored them. With the rise of the unions, the 9th’s working class voters within the Democratic Party had added reason to resist the anti-union ideology of the Byrd Machine. In 1968 both sides were unlikely to flock to the segregationist Wallace, who did very well in Southside and other more traditionally Southern parts of Virginia.

1972 was an even worse year for Democrats and it’s hard to read into the trends at the local level when the party performs so poorly nationally, but if we look at 1976 we see the same pattern again. The 9th is one of the best Democratic districts in Virginia, Carter wins 53% of the vote, behind only a very strong 59% in the 4th (which at the time stretched from southern Virginia Beach to Petersburg and had a very high minority population of 37%). The 9th was one of only three districts in the staet that you could argue leaned to the Democratic Party if you used a PVI calculation, along with the 4th and the 1st (then a Peninsula based district and then really only a nudge beyond zero/even). Even in defeat four years later, Carter kept it close in the district (losing 48% to 50%).

Pushing ahead and moving past Mondale and Dukakis (and even Dukakis still won 46% of the vote in the 9th), we arrive at 1992, when Clinton pulls off a narrow victory over Bush 45% to 43% (note the 1990 redistricting made the 9th more Republican so Clinton would still have been ahead of Dukaki’s performance under the new lines). But it represents one of the first times that a nationally competitive Democrat does not out-perform in the 9th, although only narrowly.

Four years later, Clinton defeats Dole 46% to 43%, but given the national swing to Clinton this again puts the state narrowly leaning Republican. And despite being one of Perot’s lagging districts in Virginia in 1992, it posts a double digit Perot performance with 10% of the vote going to the third party candidate. No other district hits over 8% in Virginia.

Contrast Wallace’s underperformance in the 9th in 1968 with Perot’s overperformance in the 9th in 1996. It Perot’s vote represents a protest vote of conservative Democrats refusing to cast a vote for the Republican, but upset with Clinton, we can understand Bush’s 55% victory in the 9th in 2000. The 9th suddenly starts to shoot off into the GOP’s territory. This is how I’d calculate the PVI for the 9th in the elections, under the 1990 lines:

1998: R +1

1992: R +2

1996: R +3

2000: R +10

And then under the 2000 lines:

2000: R +6

2004: R +4

2008: R +13

That’s a pretty hard turn to the right, all leading up to Boucher’s defeat in 2010.

Virginia Democrats had a bittersweet comeback in 2011 after Boucher’s defeat, successfully reelecting State Senator Phil Puckett, but I don’t know if it’s clear that there are many more victories that can be achieved in Southwest Virginia. Puckett will be vulnerable the next time around, and who knows who can step up to replace him when he retires. We have the same problem in the House with Delegate Johnson.

Of the roughly 7 Delegate’s districts, only the 12th is competitive when you consider our party’s past performance at the statewide level. Other districts would require a Puckett-like candidate who can sufficiently distance themselves from our party’s national image. The growth around Blacksburg may concern future Republican gerrymanderers, and I have hopes that we can contest and recapture the 12th down the line. But I’m pessimistic about the rest of the region, for now.

Sean Trende in his recent book “The Lost Majority” argues that the region of the country he calls “Greater Appalachia” started to shift away from the Democratic Party during the Bush era but that the bottom really fell out from beneath local Democrats with the election of President Obama. The shift in the 9th is just one data point in this trend.

It is interesting how this parallels earlier eras of political change. In “The Emerging Republican Majority,” Kevin Phillips traces changes in voting patterns in the late 1960s that he believes show a pathway for a new Republican majority. He notes that ancestrally Democratic, but rural and conservative, areas of the Midwest and South are swinging toward the new conservative Republican Party. He notes, in passing, that some traditionally liberal or progressive rural areas in the upper North (settled by Yankees) are swinging to the Democrats, but that in net the GOP will benefit.

And for almost twenty years you can argue they did, until the hard-right conservatism of the Religious Right drove away moderate voters in the suburbs, turning states like California, Connecticut, and New Jersey deep blue.

Today, unlike the 1990s, the Democrats are struggling with one rural area that stuck with them despite the changes of the 1960s and 1970s: Greater Appalachia. West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri are now taking a hard right turn, whereas previously they clung to their more working class and populist roots.

Nationally Obama is still in position to win reelection by building on his strength among the growing Hispanic population and the new suburbs. But for Virginia it may mean our opportunities in Southwest Virginia are closed and we’ll have to look elsewhere . . .

To be continued?