Election Puts Another Plank Across Va.'s 'Unbridgeable Gulf'

Thirty percent of conservatives and a quarter of Republicans voted for Sen.-elect Mark R. Warner (D).
Thirty percent of conservatives and a quarter of Republicans voted for Sen.-elect Mark R. Warner (D). (Alex Wong - Getty Images)
By Sandhya Somashekhar and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 9, 2008

It created quite a stir this fall when an adviser to John McCain made a distinction between Northern Virginia and "the real Virginia." But she wasn't mocking. She was expressing faith that the Arizona senator would carry the state, as every GOP presidential hopeful has since 1964, on the strength of his appeal in the rural reaches.

But on Election Day, the Virginia that prevailed was the one carved into cul-de-sacs, office parks and six-lane highways.

Barack Obama's victory was rooted not only in the blue-hued suburbs of close-in Northern Virginia, but also in Loudoun and Prince William counties, Richmond and its typically Republican-leaning outskirts, the heavily populated and racially diverse area of Hampton Roads that is home to both parties' core constituencies, traditionally black enclaves and college towns such as Charlottesville.

It was a day of vindication for Diane DeMaio, 61, a retired federal worker who moved to the Alexandria section of Fairfax County from the District about 20 years ago. A self-described liberal, she said she always felt a world apart from her state, both culturally and politically.

"I'm thrilled that Virginia went blue," DeMaio said. "There's some kind of a new trend here, and I love it. I'm finally happy with where I live."

The trend, experts say, is that the real Virginia is starting to look as much like Northern Virginia as rural Virginia. The state is suburbanizing rapidly, and voters in those suburbs are beginning to align themselves politically with Northern Virginians, eschewing some conservative social issues in favor of quality-of-life concerns that Democrats have tried to seize.

"The Republican base in Virginia is not big enough to deliver victory to a Republican," said Mark J. Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. "It may have worked in the past for George Allen and Jim Gilmore to ratchet up the Republican base and count on the fact that their base was bigger than the other side's base. That is no longer the model for success in this state."

As expected, McCain drew his strongest support from rural regions in Southside, the Southwest and the Shenandoah Valley, traditional Republican strongholds. He was so certain he would win that he never campaigned there. But it was not enough to override Obama's support elsewhere.

Northern Virginia's sway has grown steadily over the years as its population has blossomed, and its suburban concerns of transportation and development have taken center stage over gun rights and abortion. Voters in the Washington suburbs helped propel a series of Democrats into office, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005 and Sen. James Webb in 2006. In the state Senate, where Democrats won the majority last year, Northern Virginians run the chamber.

Last week's election is the latest sign that the balance of power has shifted from rural areas toward affluent, diverse and growing suburbs that increasingly go for Democratic candidates, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"In a democracy, numbers matter," Sabato said. And the numbers have shaken up the establishment. "Think of it this way: Some people have been on the outside looking in for most of their lives, and suddenly they're on the inside. And the people who were running the place are stunned and sitting by the curb. It's a role reversal."

Some say the cultural divide between north and south is exaggerated and unhelpful. Among them is popular former governor Mark R. Warner (D), who handily won his race for U.S. Senate by taking each of the state's 11 congressional districts and dominating every region of the state. Thirty percent of self-described conservatives voted for him, as did a quarter of Republicans, according to exit polls.

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