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Why Virginia Matters (Besides the Obvious)

Republicans looking for a silver lining in last week’s Virginia elections got some bad news today: it looks like the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Mark Herring, will eke out a victory by less than 200 votes, enabling the Democrats to sweep Election Day’s major contests in that state. The current margin of victory allows the Republican candidate, Mark Obenshain, to request a recount, which the state will pay for since the margin is less than one half of one percent, according to Time.

Though obviously not as significant as the governor’s race, the attorney general gets a head start on running for governor, since Virginia governors are limited to one term. This is especially true for an attorney general when his party does not also hold the governorship of the state, since it gives him an advantage in wrangling for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in the following election. The office can also offer an attorney general a way to gain national name recognition and experience, as Ken Cuccinelli did with his role in the states’ legal charge against ObamaCare.

So it would have been a consolation prize worth having for Republicans in Virginia. Additionally, the GOP is confronting what Reid Wilson calls a “changed electorate” that enabled Terry McAuliffe to win. McAuliffe can only serve one term, so Virginians just have to make sure he doesn’t do anything crazy in that time, like sell the state at a “Clinton 2016” fundraiser or some such. But after McAuliffe leaves office, Republicans will still have to face this “changed electorate,” and do so with the momentum pulling the state into the Democrats’ column. And that changed electorate is in part about turnout–an area the Democrats excelled in during President Obama’s reelection and which the Romney campaign flubbed badly. Wilson explains:

The McAuliffe campaign had to invest heavily in digital media, Mook said, because many of the voters most likely to back the Democrat were part of groups that vote at lower rates — particularly younger voters and minorities. …

The gamble on turning out McAuliffe-friendly voters paid off: Exit polls showed the 2013 electorate was 72 percent white and 20 percent African American. Those two groups made up 78 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in 2009. Cuccinelli won white voters by a 56 percent to 36 percent margin, while McAuliffe won among blacks with 90 percent of the vote.

Younger voters, between the ages of 18 and 29, made up 13 percent of the electorate, three points higher than in 2009. Those voters gave McAuliffe a 45 percent to 40 percent edge; in 2009, younger voters chose Republican McDonnell by a 10-point margin.

So Virginia matters for all the obvious reasons: it used to be a red state; it may be a leading indicator of Republican struggles in swing states; it’s evidence the Democrats still have a superior ground game; etc. But it also matters for another reason, one that is both quantifiable and symbolic: the northern Virginia suburbs.

First, the quantifiable: as the Washington Post reports, population increases in the northern Virginia, blue-leaning counties hurt the Cuccinelli campaign in ways that portend trouble ahead for the Republicans. In three of those counties, for example, the Post explains that McAuliffe either matched, slightly exceeded, or slightly underperformed the voting percentages accrued there by Tim Kaine, the last Democrat to win the governorship eight years ago. Yet basically matching Kaine’s percentages in Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun counties still gave McAuliffe an extra 6,400, 7,000, and 300 or so votes respectively.

Northern Virginia is home to a sizable population of federal workers and where, according to the Hill, nearly one-third of the economy depends on the federal government. According to some estimates, there are 65,000 federal employees living in northern Virginia and 110,000 federal workers who work there. So the politics of Virginia are clearly influenced by the growth of government and people dependent on it.

And that gets to the symbolic aspect of this. The trend is understandable, but it is also an inversion of the benefits of the famous deal Thomas Jefferson and James Madison struck with Alexander Hamilton to locate the capital on the Potomac in return for the federal assumption of state debts (and a favorable accounting of such as far as Virginia was concerned). Their intentions, of course, are difficult to know. But the practical effect of locating the capital on the Potomac was to inaugurate a capital that was modest and humble, not imposing and imperialistic. As Joseph J. Ellis writes in Founding Brothers, in its early years it would easily assuage anyone’s concern about the powers of the new federal government: “It symbolized the victory of diffusion over consolidation.”

Skeptics of the federal government and the Hamilton deal wanted Madison and Jefferson to oppose it on the grounds that the debt assumption was akin to conquest by a foreign power–this new federal Leviathan, from which the states could be forgiven for contemplating secession. Ellis continues:

Jefferson and Madison claimed to share their apprehensions and their political principles, but not their secessionist impulses. Their strategy was different. They would not abandon the government, but capture it. Like the new capital, it would become an extension of Virginia, or at least the Virginia vision of what the American Revolution meant and the American republic was therefore meant to be.

The trend that carried McAuliffe to victory, and threatens to concretize in Virginia, is the opposite effect. It is the looming capture of Virginia by the federal government and the capital, and making Virginia an extension of the vision of the American republic according to the federal bureaucrat. Jefferson soon regretted the deal and his role in it, and nothing since then would likely change his mind.