Tuesday night’s triumph for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party is truly a turning point for the nation and the Old Dominion, even though saying so sounds as trite as a newspaper headline.
For Virginia, it was the first time that the state voted for a Democratic president since 1964 and, in doing so; it has expunged a truly ugly chapter in the state’s history.
True, Virginia did elect the first African-American governor in 1989, but in election after election for 44 years, Virginia voters stuck with Republican Party strategies that all too often were based on wedge issues involving racism and reaction.
The trend kicked after 1964 when Virginia last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. Since then, voting seemed a knee-jerk move against racial integration of society and schools. According to Bob Moser, author of “Blue Dixie:” “It’s true that Democrats were bound to take a hit in the South after LBJ signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, which ended all forms of legal segregation and doomed various schemes – literacy tests, violent intimidation – that had suppressed black registration ands turnout.”
Unfortunately, Virginia then bought into every retrograde political agenda the GOP could come up with. There was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” which was based on building up a sense of white, working class despair over the tumultuous social and racial upheavals of the 1960s. This was the first organized attempt by Republicans to create a “Silent Majority” that was the real keeper of the American faith, sort of like Sarah Palin telling residents in a small North Carolina town that they were the “true Americans.”
And on we went. When Jimmy Carter carried the South in 1976, Virginia didn’t go with him. The Old Dominion bought into the Reagan revolution hook, line and sinker. Even though Reagan, who had some good ideas, ended up being the tremendous government spender he supposedly despised. Reagan was a riddle of contradictions – a Hollywood actor, divorcee and non-church-goer, who, as Moser points out, cast himself as an authentic, family-oriented and religious guy.
Virginia’s Republican politicians have tried to ride the Reagan wave as far as they could up the beach. Well into the 1990s, we had cowboy-booted George “Aw Shucks” Allen coming after welfare queens and building prisons and having his insulting macacca moment. Former Governor Jim Gilmore made a fetish out of his destructive car tax while making hash of the state’s budget.
With Democrat Mark Warner, the state got a big signal of its momentous demographic shift. Here was an out-of-stater living in Northern Virginia, whose economic boom was drawing in thousands of new people with new ideas, making it big in the free-market that GOPers claimed to so love. No big surprise, but Warner easily crushed Gilmore’s pointless run for senator, giving the state two Democratic senators for the first time in years.
Obama’s story is an almost magical one. He’s a half-white, half-black man who has just won in a state that as recently as 1967, back when I was in high school, made it illegal for different races to marry. Boasting of strong oratory skills and superb campaign organization, he took on old Democratic icons such as the Clintons, beat them and then won in Virginia.
True, it wasn’t a crushing defeat. Obama didn’t take much of the rural state or stubborn conservative strongholds such as my home county of Chesterfield. But big, populous counties that used to vote strictly Republican, such as Henrico, Loudoun and Prince William, went Democratic. More predictably Democratic cities such as Norfolk and Richmond did, too.
Once again, here’s evidence of the demographic shifts that have changed the face of Virginia. And it shows just how badly the Republicans have stumbled after eight disastrous years of George Bush and, after 44 years, just how they are exhausted they are of ideas.
Voters are saying that simply running against abortion, for guns and against immigrants won’t cut it any more. Serving up an under qualified “You Betcha” candidate whose only real asset is her gender won’t cut it, either. The economy is a mess and the financial markets face their worst crisis since the 1930s. We’re still stuck in two messy wars. Luckily, we have a new president whose message is hope and inclusion, not wedge issues. And voters are not stupid.