The message coming out of a local southern-style restaurant on a recent balmy evening here was loud and clear: people shouldn’t buy Donald Trump’s “what the hell do you have to lose” pitch to African-American voters.
The scars of the past still run deep in this state that was once home to the capital of the Confederacy. And some of the speakers addressing the crowd of more than 100 at a meet-and-greet sponsored by the Greater Hampton Roads Black Democrats framed the choice in November as one that could affect voters’ future access to the polls.
“Let me tell you what we’ve got to lose: decades of progress if this man gets anywhere near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” said state Sen. Mamie Locke of Trump. The chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus added: “We cannot turn back the hands of time.”
The GOP’s reputation on voting rights-related issues is just one of the challenges the Republican Party is facing in Virginia and elsewhere as it seeks to reach beyond its traditional white base to the minorities who are becoming an ever-larger share of the population.
A relatively diverse and well-educated state with a big stake in the federal government given its proximity to Washington, D.C., and the enormous Norfolk naval base, Virginia has made one of the country’s biggest political transformations over the last 15 years. Its shift from loyal GOP bastion to purple or blue enclave, depending on who you ask, offers a potential window for Georgia Democrats who have long predicted that changing demographics would make the state competitive.
More than a decade before states such as Georgia and Alabama transitioned from Democratic rule to ruby-red havens, Virginia was voting in Republicans for president.
But an influx of new people, mainly Latinos, Asian-Americans and college-educated voters moving to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Richmond and the eastern shore, have fundamentally reshaped the state politically over the last two decades. And in 2008, Virginia voted for a Democrat — Barack Obama — for the first time in 44 years.
“This was as solid Republican a state that this country has seen in the modern era for decades,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University who has written extensively about Southern politics. “The change has been remarkable and quite swift.”
Obama carried Virginia again in 2012, and the state was expected to be a political battleground in 2016 given its high number of swing suburban voters. But Trump and his blue-collar message have not performed as highly here as he has in other politically-divided states.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from spending a lot of time in the Old Dominion as he looks to shore up support, particularly among military families. The rural areas in Virginia’s south and west, under economic duress due to the slow decline of King Coal, have proved to be fertile territory for him.
Attendees of a recent Trump rally in Fredericksburg, a college town nestled in one of the poorer pockets of the I-95 corridor, snaked around the parking lot of the local expo center ahead of the event. Despite its proximity to Richmond and Washington, this region hasn’t seen the same demographic changes as the state’s urban areas. Many interviewed said they no longer recognize the state as people move in from other states and abroad.
“We’re outnumbered,” said Carole Shultis, a nurse practitioner from Stafford, Va. People from the North have moved in after having “ruined” their home states “with taxes, crime and their big-government philosophies,” she said, adding that she’s worried younger people are being indoctrinated in school and won’t carry on the conservative movement.
A 54-year-old rally attendee who identified himself simply as Jim said the influx of newcomers means that Virginia “has become more intolerant.” “You can’t speak your mind anymore,” said the Fredericksburg technology worker. He said he’s grown just as distrustful of the Republican Party as he has of the Democrats.
Alfred King, the chairman of the Spotsylvania County GOP, put it more bluntly: “The changes that we’ve seen over the last 10 or 15 years — we want those to go away.”
Republicans keep local focus
The position of some vocal Trump voters has created big headaches for people like John Whitbeck, the chair of the state’s Republican Party. Not only must he keep the state’s more populist and conservative wings involved, but he must also appeal to the more traditional Republicans whose livelihoods sometimes are directly or indirectly tied to the federal government.
An even larger task for the state party, though, is expanding its appeal to minorities.
“We must convince Asian and Indian-American communities to come over to our side. We must do better in the Hispanic and African-American communities,” he said. “There are hundred of thousands of voters in Virginia we can convince to come over to our side, and if we do that we’re not going to lose elections in Virginia statewide.”
The GOP has lost recent statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate but has excelled at the statehouse level by employing a more localized approach. Whitbeck said that same strategy can work for winning over non-white voters in statewide races.
“The best thing that I can do is go to that state senator, go to that local supervisor whose district is possibly majority Indian-American and say ‘how did you win this precinct and show these folks that you’re the right candidate?’” said Whitbeck, who also emphasized meeting with minority groups early and often instead of parachuting in before election day. “We really do it at the local level.”
He said he’s undeterred by recent statewide losses.
“Virginia is a swing state. It always has been and it always will be.”
Signs of confidence from Democrats
Democrats, meanwhile, have shown flashes of confidence in the Old Dominion. A month ago, some polls showed a double-digit lead for Hillary Clinton and her campaign cancelled all of its reservations for political advertisements in the state for the duration of the race, choosing to instead focus on other battlegrounds such as North Carolina and Florida. The race has since tightened, but Clinton is still ahead in the polls.
Clinton owes a large part of her success here to black voters, who form the bulwark of the Democratic Party here but still make up a smaller percentage of the population than in Georgia.
During the Greater Hampton Roads Black Democrats event, voters wearing “I’m with her” stickers expressed confidence that Clinton would carry Virginia in November. Not only that, but many predicted the state would remain Democratic.
“I see the change,” said Barbara Lee, a retiree from Staunton, Va. The young people who have moved to the state, she said, will continue to drive the political status quo to the left. “They’re interested in the future, not as much the racist past.”
Charlie Stanton, a 61-year-old from Norfolk, said that until Republicans change their messaging, they’ll have a hard time competing in Virginia.
“Virginia is a demographic ticking time bomb,” said Stanton. “If they don’t adjust they’ll be relegated to minority party status until they do.”
But political operatives and several of the voters here warned about the Democratic complacency.
“The right Republican comes along and Virginia could swing right back,” said Bryan Hurdle, a 35-year-old student from South Hampton Roads. Democrats need to “keep their boots strapped up.”
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