The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Republicans lost in Virginia — in three great maps

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It's now been a week since Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected governor of Virginia. Since then, the race has been mined for clues about future elections, both nationally and in Virginia. The below take comes from Stephen J. Farnsworth and Stephen P. Hanna of the University of Mary Washington. Farnsworth is a professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Hanna is professor and chair of geography at UMW.

For Virginia Republicans, this month’s gubernatorial race demonstrates that standing in place means losing ground.

A comparison of two governor’s races – the relatively close 2013 contest and the 2005 election when Democrat Tim Kaine defeated Republican Jerry Kilgore – illustrates the dangers for the GOP if the party does not respond to a rapidly changing state electorate.

Eight years ago, when the GOP’s socially conservative message had more traction, Kaine received 61.3 percent of the two-party vote in populous Fairfax County. Earlier this month, Republican Ken Cuccinelli held Democrat Terry McAuliffe to 61.6 percent of the two-party vote in the county. But that that nearly identical percentage in both years translated into nearly 13,000 more votes for the Democrats – but only 6,600 more for the GOP – in 2013.

The 2013 candidates did not move the partisan needle much in bellwether Prince William County either, where McAuliffe’s 54.3 percent of the two-party vote was only a bit above Kaine’s 50.9 percent eight years earlier. But once again, the gap favoring the Democrats widened: another 17,000 more votes were cast for McAuliffe when compared to the last victorious Democratic candidate for governor. The gain for the GOP was just over 10,000.

In Loudoun, another Northern Virginia swing county, McAuliffe’s 52.3 percent of the two-party vote fell short of Kaine’s 52.9 percent share in 2005. Even so, the fast-growing county cast more than 13,300 additional votes for McAuliffe than for Kaine eight years ago. The Republican gain was under 13,000.

The highly similar percentages in these two elections in these three large counties come despite the fact that in 2005, Kaine was an incumbent lieutenant governor, benefiting from the popularity of then-Gov. Mark Warner (D). McAuliffe’s lack of government experience and his questionable business practices notwithstanding, he did just about as well in the region as Kaine did. Next time, the GOP may face a more experienced Democratic nominee.

While Republicans have generated substantial increases in their support in more conservative rural areas, particularly in Southwest Virginia, that sparsely populated region of the state has little heft in statewide elections.

Larger conservative counties also offer the party little solace. In Chesterfield, one of the most pro-GOP of the state’s largest counties, Democrats did about as well in both elections: 45.5 percent in 2005 and 45.7 percent in 2013. That translated into a wash: about 2,900 more votes for the GOP and about 2,700 more votes for the Democrat when comparing 2013 and 2005.

The depth of Republicans’ challenges going forward can be seen more clearly by mapping election results on a cartogram – a map that scales the size of each jurisdiction by votes cast rather than by acreage. Fairfax County, Richmond and Virginia Beach cast more votes and, therefore, appear much larger than the state’s many rural counties.

The map accompanying this column better represents the geographic distribution of Virginia’s voters than a traditional state map. Democrats retained their 2005 margins in the most populous counties and cities and sometimes did a bit better in 2013. The greatest Republican gains this year are found in the tiniest (by population) jurisdictions.

Republican candidates for statewide office need to focus on where the voters are, geographically, as well as demographically and culturally. Despite his very thin governing credentials, McAuliffe effectively painted his opponent as an extremist who cared more about closing abortion clinics than getting Virginians back to work.

Given voting trends that are best problematic going forward, Republicans would be wise to seek more moderate statewide candidates.