In an election season that challenged Virginia’s nascent status as a blue state, there was one source of cold comfort for Democrats reeling from a string of losses: Stafford County.

Two candidates — one Democrat and one independent endorsed by Democrats — flipped a pair of GOP-held seats earlier this month in this fast-growing community of about 160,000, ending Republican control of the Stafford Board of Supervisors for the first time in over a decade.

Platforms focused on improving infrastructure and school funding helped edge Monica Gary (I) and Pamela Yeung (D) to victory in the county’s northern end, about 40 miles south of Washington.

Taken alone, the board’s shift shows that the “blue wave” of Northern Virginia is now reaching the outermost edges of the region. But with Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) winning Stafford by a margin nearly five times the statewide average, political observers say this fall’s election results demonstrate that wave is coming to Stafford as more of a trickle than a tsunami.

“If you look at Democratic gains over the last 20 years in Northern Virginia, you can see a steady movement down Interstate 95 and out Interstate 66,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “But I’m not sure you want to look at 2021 as the year that Stafford became blue.”

Once a largely rural community bisected by I-95, the county has ballooned in population in recent years, fueled by the kind of rapid development and suburbanization that has transformed much of the Washington region.

In 2019, similar demographic changes allowed Democrats to claim control of local government in both Prince William and Loudoun counties. That election was seen as a historic sweep for the party — a sharp reversal from the years in which the party’s dominance in Northern Virginia was confined to areas closer to the Beltway.

But that phenomenon did not quite repeat itself in Stafford. Come January, the board of supervisors will be split among three Republicans, two Democrats and two independents who must reckon with how fast the county should grow — and how its schools and roads can keep up.

“The demographics are changing, and that’s not all bad,” said Republican Bill Howell, the former speaker of the House of Delegates, who for decades represented a Stafford-based seat. “But I don’t think that automatically means we’re becoming more Democratic. … What it means is that you’ve got to speak to the issues that concern these new people.”

A focus on public safety and school curriculums, for example, allowed private school educator Tara Durant (R) to unseat Del. Joshua Cole (D-Fredericksburg) last month in a local House race, Howell said, even though Cole outspent her by about 2 to 1.

Qasim Rashid, a Stafford lawyer who ran an unsuccessful bid as a Democrat last year for Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, said voters opted for more liberal candidates — at least locally — because Republicans on the board had pushed away growing diversity, such as in their fight against plans for an Islamic cemetery.

“If trends continue, especially if we can see a Democrat engage the way they have been, I can foresee in a decade Stafford is going to be solidly blue,” he said. “The idea of a Republican winning is going to be laughable.”

A changing county

Since Howell was first elected in 1987, Stafford County’s population has more than tripled, driven by an influx of families from the D.C. area who moved in search of cheaper housing and more space. Military families have clustered around Marine Corps Base Quantico in the northern end of the county, while I-95 has put federal government employees within commuting distance of Washington.

People of color now account for about one-third of the county’s population, which U.S. census data shows was once more than 90 percent White. There are more than 85 languages represented in the school system.

This kind of population growth has shifted the political terrain, allowing Democrats to compete in and win elections in what was once solidly Republican territory: After going for Donald Trump in 2016, Stafford voted for Joe Biden by about three percentage points in 2020.

Amid that change, the GOP-held Board has not shied away from controversy. Its efforts to block a planned Islamic cemetery site near Marine Corps Base Quantico led to a religious discrimination lawsuit from the Justice Department — and then, a $500,000 settlement earlier this fall.

The board also looked to slow some of the growth pouring into the county by changing density requirements that doubled the number of acres needed to build by-right in more rural areas designated for agriculture.

When state lawmakers gave localities the option to choose a new namesake for Jefferson Davis Highway, some board members opted for a fallen White state trooper. That generated complaints from residents who hoped to see a name that addressed the legacy of slavery and the Confederacy.

It was against that backdrop that Gary, a mother of seven and a frequent presence at board meetings, decided to run.

A former exotic dancer turned reverend, Gary wrote the book “Prayer, For Women Like Us: A Prayer Book and Journal For Exotic Dancers,” at times discussing her former career while campaigning. And while touting her efforts to address flooded roads and create a multicultural coalition, she cast her candidacy as a push against partisanship.

“People are tired of the nonsense. People want integrity and they want honesty and they want something real,” she said, decrying efforts to rename the highway for the state trooper — whose name is already on a bridge — and a lack of planned “smart growth.”

Gary’s opponent, Supervisor Paul Milde (R-Aquia) outspent her by more than 10 to 1. She won by exactly 150 votes.

Personality vs. party

Supervisor Tinesha Allen (D-Griffis-Widewater), who up until this year was only the third Democrat elected locally in Stafford since 2008, said wins like Gary’s should be considered separately from statewide races.

“It was more so a microcosm of the right candidates running rather than the ticket carrying them,” she said. “Our candidates have established reputations in the community and have support in the community, so they were still able to pull out the victory.”

That view was echoed by Supervisor Gary Snellings (R-Hartwood), who is retiring from his seat after decades in county politics.

Known as the Stafford board’s “resident historian,” he said this year’s election parallels the only other time in his tenure that Republicans were in the minority, when four incumbents were voted out in 2005 because of wide dissatisfaction with the board.

“When you get down to the local level, it’s some party but it’s mainly personality,” Snellings said. “You’ve got some people voting for so-and-so because they don’t like the person running against them.”

Case in point, he said, were the results in statewide races: Stafford voters went for Youngkin over Terry McAuliffe (D) by a nearly 11-point margin — more than five times the statewide total, and a stark contrast to the Democrat’s lead further north, in Prince William and Fairfax counties.

Still, Stafford also has a long tradition of independent candidates — people like Gary — who have eschewed partisanship even as they receive backing from one major party or the other.

With no clear majority between the Democrats or GOP, Snellings said, come January, the board’s two independents — Gary and Supervisor Tom Coen — will effectively act as kingmakers, influencing policies on broadband connectivity, increasing congestion and crowded schools.

“We’re going to have a lot of 4-3 votes,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Stafford Supervisor Paul Milde (R-Aquia) outspent his victorious opponent 100-1. He outspent Monica Gary by 10-1. The story has been corrected.