Purple Virginia

Thursday, November 8, 2007

THE PURPLING of Virginia -- its makeover from a more or less reliably Republican state to one more evenly split between the major parties -- got a lift from Tuesday's election results, in which Democrats won control of the Senate for the first time in a decade. In the afterglow of victory, they crowed that the Republicans' strategy of bashing illegal immigrants had failed. Not quite.

Yes, it was heartening to see the defeats of a number of GOP candidates at the state and local levels who ran as immigration hawks, embracing largely symbolic measures to hound illegal newcomers and pretending that they would deal with a problem that in reality only the federal government can address meaningfully. But a number of other Republicans won by running on the same message. And in those mixed results there are cautionary signs for both parties, and for the state.

The key political fault line in Virginia, and particularly in Northern Virginia, now runs between the suburbs and the exurbs. It divides the inner suburban districts anchored in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, where a strategy built around vilifying illegal immigrants appeared not to work, from the exurban ones in Prince William, Loudoun, Stafford and beyond, where the same message had more success. The inner suburbs -- urbanized, ethnic, dense and diverse -- are now something approaching a Democratic stronghold, while Republicans are left with the whiter, sparser but often fast-growing outer suburban and rural jurisdictions. Virginia's endangered-species list now includes rural Democrats and urban Republicans.

The peril for Republicans is that they are on the wrong side of a long-term urbanizing trend in Virginia; fighting it is like fighting the tides. That shift will be cast in relief by the Northern Virginia Democrats who will dominate the leadership of the new Senate when it convenes in January.

But Democrats must also take account of voters' genuine and legitimate concern about the impact of undocumented workers on their neighborhoods and communities -- not by adopting the coded nativism favored by many Republican candidates but by getting serious about enforcing existing zoning laws.

Democrats also face the grim prospect that their victory may end up looking somewhat empty. Although the Senate will have a slender Democratic majority, the House of Delegates -- which has repeatedly blocked Democratic initiatives to invest in the state's future -- will remain under barely dented Republican control. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who worked so hard (and spent so heavily) to help get fellow Democrats elected, may find that the new legislature is no friendlier a place to do business than the old.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company