Home Virginia Politics Some Thoughts and Quibbles (and More than Quibbles) on Yesterday’s UVA “Crystal...

Some Thoughts and Quibbles (and More than Quibbles) on Yesterday’s UVA “Crystal Ball” Article, “States of Play: Virginia”

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For years, I’ve found the UVA Center for Politics’ “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” publication to be an excellent resource (other than badly missing their 2016 presidential and US Senate forecasts, but then again, so did many prognosticators), and Professor Larry Sabato to be one of the best political analysts around. Having said that, I do have some quibbles – or, more than quibbles in several cases – with the article they posted yesterday, “States of Play: Virginia.” I’ll get to the quibbles in a minute, but first, here’s where I *agree* with the analysis.

  • “The Commonwealth of Virginia, or the Old Dominion as it is sometimes referred to, is known by many political observers for its conservative political history — from its time as the capital of the Confederacy to its decades-long control by the segregationist Byrd machine. Yet there has been a noticeable shift in Virginia’s political dynamic in recent years.” – This is absolutely accurate. It’s important to remind folks, by the way, that the Democratic Party prior to the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, etc. of the 1960s was in no way/shape/form the same as today’s Democratic Party, but was basically a weird amalgam of northern liberals and southern segregationist “Dixiecrats.” Today, those “Dixiecrats” are what’s known as Republicans, and the former progressive Republicans are now Democrats. Massive realignment, in other words, which is why any time you hear a Republican claiming Democrats are the party of segregation, blah blah blah, you know their “argument” (in air quotes) is in really bad faith…
  • Since 2000, “Virginia has gone from comfortably GOP to a state that few doubt that Joe Biden will carry in a couple of weeks — and perhaps by double-digits, as much polling suggests.” Yep, that is undoubtedly the case.
  • “In surveying Virginia’s current political situation, one finds a Republican Party that’s struggling for relevance: the GOP has not won a statewide contest since 2009.” Bingo. Because the Virginia GOP has gone far, far right, wayyy out of the mainstream of where most Virginians are, politically/ideologically speaking.
  • “Virginia would go on to usher in its liberal era decisively in the period from 2000 to the present day. The Commonwealth would vote for Republican George W. Bush by 8 points in 2000, but this Republican tilt would steadily erode.” Agreed.

Now, let’s get into the “quibbles” – or more than “quibbles.” 😉

  • “Before his time as a statewide official, Kaine was mayor of Richmond. He was particularly influential in Virginia’s leftward shift — he essentially drew the current Virginia electoral map in his 2005 gubernatorial win.” First off, I do not believe that Virginia has shifted “leftward” much, if at all. What’s happened, instead – and this is a very important distinction, IMHO – is that the *Republican Party* has lurched far, far to the right, and mostly “centrist” Virginia voters (including many who voted for Republicans such as John Warner, George Allen, Frank Wolf, etc, etc.) have rejected that extremism. There’s no need to believe me, by the way, on Republicans shifting to the right; check out this study, which finds that: a) the GOP has “become dramatically more illiberal in the past two decades and now more closely resembles ruling parties in autocratic societies than its former centre-right equivalents in Europe”; and b) “By contrast the Democratic party has changed little in its attachment to democratic norms, and in that regard has remained similar to centre-right and centre-left parties in western Europe.” Second, I disagree that Tim Kaine, who governed as a “pro-business moderate” (heck, he signed the estate tax repeal and pushed for a new, coal-fired power plant in Wise County, among other things) had anything to do with, let alone being “particularly influential in,” Virginia’s supposed “leftward shift,” which again hasn’t happened. Finally, I see what they’re saying about Virginia’s political map, and I’d give the 2005 Kaine credit for capitalizing on trends pushing Virginia “blue,” particularly in the urban/suburban “crescent” from Hampton Roads to Richmond to NoVA, but Kaine didn’t draw the map; that’s just wrong. Also note, the shift to Kaine in the 2005 election happened in September/October, as Bush’s approval ratings slid in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. The 2005 Kaine campaign didn’t cause that to happen, obviously, but he was able to capitalize on it…
  • “Though many observers attributed Allen’s loss to a gaffe he made during the campaign, Webb’s winning coalition looked a lot like Kaine’s the year earlier, a sign that recent shifts were solidifying.” I partly agree, partly disagree with this. No question, people make a mistake when they oversimplify the Webb vs. Allen race as “Allen said a racist word, so Webb won.” In fact, the internal Webb campaign polling had the race as slowly narrowing, and with no dramatic shift due to “macaca.” I’d argue that “macaca” helped shift the media narrative, kept Allen on the defensive for the rest of the campaign, and led to further “forced errors” by Allen, including more information about his views and history of racism coming out. All of which helped Webb, not Allen. I’d also note that Webb had a massive grassroots/netroots movement – to an extent enabled by the rise of social media – behind him, which was fueled in part by anger at the Iraq War, and that that should not be ignored or discounted.
  • “In 2016, Virginia voted about three percentage points left of the national popular vote, which was an indication that it was starting to drift off the presidential playing board.” Again, it’s not about Virginia being “left” of anything, it’s about Virginia being a few points “bluer,” or more Democratic. Those are VERY different things. Note that on issue after issue, the Democrats’ positions are in the majority – often the LARGE majority – or at least plurality. So, by definition, Democrats are the centrist party in this country, while Republicans are now far right, more akin to far-right parties in Europe than to the historic GOP in this country, which had a mix of progressives, “Country Club Republicans,” moderates, and conservatives in it.
  • Loudoun County “zoomed left for 2016, giving Clinton a 55%-38% vote.” Again, no, it didn’t “zoom left,” it simply got “bluer”/more Democratic. Also, as I noted in this recent post, Loudoun County “tipped” “blue” in the 2008 presidential election, when it went for Obama by 8.3 points, then got even “bluer” in 2016 (Clinton +17 points) and 2018 (Kaine +28 points). 
  • “Even with limited polling of the Senate race, Warner is a big favorite in November. That said, Warner has drawn a credible opponent in Army veteran Daniel Gade (R), who lost a leg in Iraq in 2005.” I agree that Warner is the “big favorite” to win. I disagree that Gade – someone who started with no name ID, and who has run an underfunded campaign, in which he has lied continuously about just about everything, is in any way a “credible opponent.”
  • “With Trump as the face of the national Republican Party, both Comstock and Taylor saw much of their crossover vote evaporate, and Kaine’s margin was enough to lift Democrat Abigail Spanberger in the Richmond-centric 7th District.” I agree re: Trump and “crossover vote evaporat[ing],” but I’m not sure that Kaine’s margin was what lifted Spanberger in VA07. I guess we’ll find out, to an extent, this time around…

Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in this piece, but also some parts with which I have “quibbles” – or more than “quibbles.” How about you?

UPDATED: From the comments section, some interesting thoughts by Adam Siegel…

As per discussion yesterday, this really should have been a reference piece … substantive background/perspective on 20 year evolution/change in VA politics from VA’s leading political analytical site/people … instead, it gets some really important stuff wrong by deed & omission (much of which you discuss above).

Also missing is the dramatic change in the extent and nature of ‘grass roots’ activism in Virginia politics. The ‘grass roots’ really is absent from this discussion. In the mid-00s, Raising Kaine and the Draft Webb movement were, as far as I understand, the first serious ‘new media’/internet drives from ‘grass roots’ that had serious impact on Virginia politics. In 2009, the Corporate-enabled/funded/facilitated Tea Party helped drive a GOP sweep into redistricting imbalance that favored the GOP (enabled by an inept VA Senate Dems effort to ‘protect’ their own positions while hobbling Democratic Party chances for a meaningful voice in the House of Delegates due to highly GOP favorable districts). Post Trump’s victory, a mass of activism emerged in Virginia which has been a major factor in helping Democratic Party victories in 2017, 2018, 2019, and almost certainly in 2020. Large numbers of people essentially absent from politics other than at the voting booth prior to 2016 are now year-round activists. That shifting nature of ‘citizen’ engagement is entirely absent from the discussion and failure to include it is a meaningful gap in a 20-year retrospective on VA politics.

While a major reason for Virginia’s Blue Shift is ‘negative’ (due to the Virginia Republican Party’s accelerating descent into science / expert / reality denying extremism at odds with the majority of Virginians views of the world, policy priorities, and ethics/morality), there is also: (a) long term demographic shifting (with increasing educational levels, suburbanization, diversity); and (b) improving Democratic Party coordination/collaboration over the past decade (‘impression’ of coordinated campaigns actually leading to coordination with more effective use of resources).

The post really emphasizes an importance of Senators pulling up Congressional candidates. That is not my sense of Virginia politics. In 2020, for example, a reasonable summation seems to be: this election is about Trump, Trump, Trump AND the specific candidates — not about the Senate (that is, in Virginia). Not, per se, Senator Warner might mildly help (and certainly won’t hurt) “down ballot” candidates but won’t be ‘the’ primary driver for (for example) a Webb victory in VA05 (which will be due to how strong an individual/candidate Cameron Webb is, the disorder of the VA05 Republicans, how bad a candidate No-Good Bob is, and Biden/Trump). I don’t recall, in 2018, anyone ascribing Luria, Spanberger, and Wexton victories to Tim Kaine — again, he certainly helped (and undoubtedly didn’t hurt — and I want to make clear that I understand and not demean the fact that he worked hard to help elect Democratic Party candidates across the Commonwealth) in all three districts but did any post-election victory analysis put the Laurels on Tim Kaine as ‘the’ reason these three eminently qualified women won election and are now serving their districts extremely well in the House of Representatives?

Staying with Tim Kaine, the multiple commentaries about him pulling Virginia Democratic Party ‘left’ as if he was/is some form of radical on the left simply doesn’t ring true. We could look to his promotion of the (un)Wise coal plant and signing of the Estate Tax revocation as counter-examples. But, well, perhaps he was / is a radical progressive since the progressive left was massively exuberant when Clinton chose Kaine to be her running mate. I remember the videos of the dancing exuberant and ecstatic Sanders’ supporters on the news that someone who made Bernie look moderate was on the Presidential ticket. (Hint, if necessary, snark …)

Seriously, reading this piece, one might have some sort of impression that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is some sort of pansy capitalist compared to Virginia’s Democratic Party governors. Can any honest analysis (not talking Breitbart or OANN people) conclude that elected Ds statewide (Kaine, Webb, Warner, Northam, T-Mac) were such radical left wingers? So much for that post’s constant referencing of/suggesting some sort of huge lunge to the left.