Bless Their Hearts

In the battle for a changing Virginia, Democrats may be changing faster than Republicans.

Barack Obama campaigns in Virginia Beach

Standing outside the stunning beaux-arts lobby of Richmond’s legendary Jefferson Hotel in August, I struck up a conversation with a woman who—noticing my not-from-here accent—offered what she described as the golden rule of talking like a Virginian. In her 50s or 60s, impeccably dressed, and racing to make a dinner reservation at one of the tony restaurants in the city’s historic Shockoe Slip, she patiently explained: “If you want to sound like a real Virginian, you just say, ‘Bless your heart’ after every single sentence. Doesn’t matter how mean it is! You just turn to your hairdresser and say, ‘I hate this goddamn, stupid haircut, bless your heart,’ and you’re from Virginia!”

Explanations for the purpling of Virginia are so numerous and complex, the subject has started to bore even Virginians. How is it possible that the heart of the Confederacy, the birthplace of American slavery, and a state that hasn’t picked a Democrat for president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, is suddenly very much in play? The question may fascinate pundits elsewhere, but in Virginia, it’s more likely to elicit a different answer: “Who knows? Bless your heart.”

Polling this month shows John McCain trailing Barack Obama by between two and 10 points, with the most recent polls showing Obama with a 4-point lead. The state that went for George W. Bush twice, without a drop of sweat on his part, is up for grabs.

This has at least something to do with the fact that Obama has treated Virginia to extra-special love-bombing for months now. He has visited the state at least 10 times since the spring (including an appearance in Virginia Beach on Thursday), whereas McCain has stopped by only three times. (Both candidates have scheduled one last visit before Election Day.) Obama has 70 campaign offices scattered throughout the state to McCain’s 21. At one point, Obama was outspending McCain on TV ads by a margin of more than 8-to-1. When yet another Obama canvasser knocked on the front door last night, my 3-year-old asked if he was trick-or-treating and handed him some Skittles.

Moreover, there are more than 400,000 newly registered voters in Virginia this year, and while they aren’t required to state their party affiliations, 40 percent of them are under 35, a group that skews Obama-ward. But all you really have to do to understand why Virginia is turning purple is to walk down some of those leafy small-town streets in Lynchburg, Danville, Leesburg, or Harrisonburg. These streets may have launched a half-dozen or more presidents, but today they boast Vietnamese restaurants, Brazilian music, and tapas bars.

As a reporter, Bob Gibson, now executive director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, covered Virginia politics for more than 30 years. For hundreds of years, he points out, what it meant to be a Virginian was absolutely clear. “It used to take a long time to be accepted as a Virginian,” he says. But today, five of 10 Virginians were born out of state, and one in 10 was born in a foreign country. Of those, 40 percent are from Asian countries and 30 percent from Latin America.

And the McCain campaign is well aware—painfully aware, you might say—of this new Virginia. Charlottesville is a notoriously blue city in red Albemarle County, and the McCain office here is staffed by four elderly white volunteers, stuffing mailers, and a young man at a computer. I ask Chris Schoenwald, the Albemarle County Republican chairman, how Virginia turned into a battleground state so quickly and he repeats Gibson’s explanation. “Northern Virginia … Tidewater, these regions have seen a big influx of people from northern states and they have brought Democrat sympathies with them and changed it.” But he doesn’t believe the changing demographics will change the outcome of the election. “This is still traditional Virginia, though. Even old-line traditional Democrats are pretty conservative.”

Others are less sure. Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says that the fantastic rate of immigration is “turning Virginia from a Southern state into a Mid-Atlantic state.” Instead of being “the northernmost Southern state,” he says, Virginia is becoming “the southernmost Northern state.” And he notes that the out-of-staters flooding into Virginia are a “highly educated, wealthier population who are fiscal conservatives but liberal when it comes to social policy.”

For the state Republican Party, this influx couldn’t have come at a worse time—because while the state’s population is becoming lessconservative socially, the party has become more so. The reason former Gov. James Gilmore is losing in his Senate race against former Gov. Mark Warner may have something to do with Gilmore’s uncompromising stances on social issues, including passing a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions, a partial-birth abortion ban, and his intervention in the Terry Schiavo drama. Sabato says the blue trend started in the early ‘90s and explains the successes of Democrats like Warner (who used NASCAR and bluegrass to make inroads in rural Virginia), current Gov. Tim Kaine, and Sen. Jim Webb.

Amid all this change, it’s all too easy to fall prey to geographic clichés about rusted-out tractors on abandoned farms in Southside Virginia and latte-sipping soccer moms in traffic jams in the Pottery Barn suburbs of Washington, D.C. Gibson, the former reporter, cautions against characterizing a blue Northern Virginia as over-running the red one (what McCain adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer famously called the “real Virginia,” which is “more Southern in nature”). Gibson points to Danville, a city that has replaced jobs lost overseas with high-tech jobs, connecting the former Southern tobacco town directly to the high-tech corridor near Washington. And quirky Nelson County, to the south, is full of small arts communities and former hippie enclaves that may or may not be real—but they definitely aren’t Arlington.

A visit to the Obama campaign headquarters in Charlottesville (there is another office at the University of Virginia) yields more proof that this battle for the soul of Virginia isn’t a North/South thing. Sarah El Amin is the campaign’s regional field director, and she says the Obama campaign doesn’t believe that winning the election requires “pumping out the vote in Northern Virginia” and ignoring the rest of the state. The campaign has put field offices in the most rural places in northwestern Virginia precisely because the campaign was unwilling to accept all the old assumptions. “The clichés about military or Christian or rural communities fail to affect our perception of whether he can win there.”

Virginia and Colorado have both been called the Ground Zero of the evangelical movement. Not coincidentally, perhaps, both are swing states this year. 

Of course, there are other contested races in Virginia—and they, too, reflect the reality of a changing state. In one of the most fascinating of Virginia’s congressional races, in the 5th District, Republican incumbent Virgil Goode ran ads trashing his Democratic opponent, Tom Perriello, for being a “New York Lawyer” with “Liberal New York Policies.” (Perriello was born in Virginia’s Albemarle County.) This echoes some of Gov. Sarah Palin’s anxieties about separating out the “real America” and “pro-America” areas of this great nation.

This continued insistence that Virginians who were born (or, like Periello, merely educated) elsewhere are not “real Virginians” reflects a very real, if fading, grudge. “Virginia Republicans nurse a deep, deep resentment toward Northern Virginia,” says Sabato. “They see these people as having taken their state away.” The problem, he says, is that it’s “tough to win somebody’s vote when you’re insulting them.”

And sometimes Virginia Republicans go even further: They say stupid things without even bothering to add an insult. Think, for instance, of former Sen. George Allen, who pretty much chewed off his own political right arm in 2006 by calling a campaign volunteer for his opponent macaca on camera. Or Rep. Virgil Goode, who made national news in 2006 when he excoriated Rep. Keith Ellison for asking to be sworn in to office on the Quran. Or John McCain’s brother Joe, who called Arlington and Alexandria “communist country” earlier this month. And state GOP Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick,  who compared Obama to Osama Bin Laden a few weeks back.

Any real Virginian knows that there is a proper way to say such things. If you truly feel the need to insult prospective voters, you simply say, “You’re nothing but a communist-loving, terrorist-sympathizing New Yorker. Bless your heart.”