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ArlingtonPoliticsRural vote flexes its muscle in Va. elections

Rural vote flexes its muscle in Va. elections

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If Virginia Democrats thought they could win statewide elections without expending much effort in cultivating the commonwealth’s rural vote, they got a wake-up call on Nov. 2.

More like a rake handle to the face, that is.

The question now becomes: How can the party address the seeming disparity between its increasing reliance on urban and suburban votes on the one hand, and find common cause with those in downstate areas whose ballots are just as important for statewide elections on the other?

There’s no question the party has a quandary on its hands. While Republicans were busy rolling up vote totals in Southside and Southwest Virginia on Nov. 2, the Democrats in those areas seemed unmotivated.


“They didn’t vote for Youngkin; they just didn’t vote. We’re talking about thousands and thousands,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington-Fairfax), speaking Nov. 9 to the Arlington Senior Democrats organization.

Youngkin, of course, is Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who managed to do just about everything he set out to in his effort to defeat Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. That included narrowing Democratic majorities in Northern Virginia, building the vote in the Hampton Roads area – and winning by wide margins in traditional Republican strongholds of the commonwealth.
Mission accomplished.

Youngkin also swept in his GOP ticketmates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and gave Republicans what appears to be a 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates, which for the past two years had been in Democratic hands.

Democrats will continue to hold an itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy 21-19 majority in the 40-member state Senate, but now will have a Republican tie-breaker (incoming Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears), meaning the GOP will need just 20 votes to muscle legislation through the body.

The GOP will undoubtedly be looking for Senate Democrats willing to support specific pieces of legislation put forward by the Youngkin administration.

“I’m concerned . . . they might have the votes, if [legislation] gets to the floor, on the Senate side,” said Lopez, who serves as Democratic whip in the House of Delegates.

Virginians cast about 3.1 million votes in the 2021 election, and control of the House of Delegates appears to boil down to two Hampton Roads districts (the 91st and 85th) where Republicans hold a collective 250-vote lead. Recounts are automatic in such close races, and should occur in coming days.

In deep-blue areas of Northern Virginia, the red wave downstate was a particular body blow, and Democratic leaders are attempting to sort out what it all means.

“It’s a fair criticism,” Arlington County Democratic Committee chair Jill Caiazzo said of comments made at a post-election forum that her party was either out of touch with rural voters, or not communicating effectively with them.

She suggested it was the latter, not the former.

“Democrats need to find better ways to speak to rural voters. It can be done,” Caiazzo said at a Nov. 10 election post-mortem conducted by the Arlington Committee of 100.

At the same forum, former Del. David Ramadan said Democrats took those regions of the commonwealth for granted in this election.

“There’s nothing more important than knocking on people’s doors,” he said, speaking both literally and figuratively.

But, he said, rural parts of the commonwealth are not necessarily lost to Democrats forever.

“Democrats can get some of that vote, and have in the past,” Ramadan said, pointing to efforts by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner in his various campaigns.

Losing all three statewide races and, unless things change, control of the House of Delegates was a gut punch to local Democrats, who control local politics almost unopposed.

“We had a lot of bad news” on Nov. 2, said Bob Platt, a veteran Arlington County Democratic Committee leader who serves as ad-hoc chair of Arlington Senior Democrats.

Joe Pelton, another veteran party activist and leader, suggested that Democrats need to work hard in developing new talent across the state.

Few Democratic legislators occupy districts that sit outside the party’s comfort zone of the suburbs, urban areas and some more liberal cities in otherwise Republican bastions.

One of them (Chris Hurst) was among the victims of the Republican surge. His 12th District, located west of Roanoke, is deemed competitive but over the past decade has leaned Democratic, yet Hurst – despite far more campaign cash than his Republican challenger – managed only 44 percent of the vote this year.

Democrats in some ways got lucky; several delegates narrowly survived Republican challenges on Nov. 2, and back in June, Democratic-primary voters ousted three of the more left-wing Northern Virginia Democratic contingent (Mark Levine, Ibraheem Samirah and Lee Carter) and put more moderate alternatives in front of the general-election audience.

As a result, the party will be going back to Richmond with at least 48 seats compared to the possibility of 42 or 43 had the election been a complete wipeout. And Democrats are pinning some of their hopes for a rebound on upcoming redistricting of legislative seats.

But the party likely will have to come to terms with the fact it has a major image problem with a vast swath of the electorate that provided the difference for Youngkin et al this time around.

There was “an explosion of rural voters that have not come out in the last 15, 20 years,” Lopez said. “This is a very divided state in terms of how this election played out.”

Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th), who cruised to victory over a Republican opponent on Nov. 2, said he believed divided government could bring the two parties together, rather than split them further apart.

“I am hopeful that Gov.-elect Youngkin will govern with an eye on lifting up all Virginians,” he said. “That is certainly how I intend to move forward.”

Brian Trompeter contributed to this report.

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