Winning as a liberal Democrat in Virginia

Really enjoyed this Ron Brownstein piece on Terry McAuliffe titled “how to win in Virginia as a liberal Democrat.”  Like all good Brownstein, he brings the demographic analysis:

Virginia Democrats historically have sought a cautious middle ground on such questions, largely in hope of holding culturally conservative blue-collar, evangelical, and rural white voters long considered indispensable to statewide success. But McAuliffe has repeatedly adopted liberal social positions that ensure repeated conflicts with those voters—while providing fuel to energize the Democrats’ new “coalition of the ascendant” centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and white-collar white voters, especially women. All of this has established a cavernous contrast with Cuccinelli, an unflinching conservative culture warrior, who has pushed the envelope of opposition to abortion, gay rights, and illegal immigration, as well as Obama’s health care and environmental policies.

Like the president, McAuliffe has endorsed gay marriage; universal background checks for gun purchases; an assault-weapons ban; a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally; a mandate on employers offering health insurance to include free contraception coverage; and limits on carbon emissions from new coal-fired power plants. He would also reverse the tight restrictions on abortion clinics championed by state Republicans led by Cuccinelli and outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Blue-state Democrats routinely adopt such positions. But in purple Virginia, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, now both senators, moved more warily when they won the governorship in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Both men opposed further gun-control legislation and rejected gay marriage (although they opposed, as overly broad, a state constitutional amendment to ban it)…

et McAuliffe’s advisers recognize that better mechanics alone won’t drive turnout and that his fate will pivot more on exciting intermittent Democratic-leaning voters than reassuring right-tilting whites. “It is difficult to create enthusiasm and engagement among both Democratic voters and Democratic activists if you don’t step up on these issues,” said Geoff Garin, McAuliffe’s pollster.

Shifting population patterns have allowed—even pressured—Virginia Democrats to execute this shift. Geographically, as my colleague David Wasserman has calculated, socially liberal Northern Virginia, swelled by a vibrant technology sector, is steadily marching toward 30 percent of the statewide vote. Meanwhile, the downscale white Appalachian counties that Republicans have targeted with their “war on coal” campaign against McAuliffe (and Obama) have dipped to less than 10 percent.

Demographically, the state is growing better educated and more diverse, enlarging the strongest Democratic constituencies. Last week’s Quinnipiac University poll showed McAuliffe winning just one-third of noncollege whites but capturing almost half of college-educated whites (including a majority of such women), most young voters, and a commanding three-fourths of minorities. That tracked Obama’s winning coalition and was enough for a nearly double-digit overall lead.

Short version: in a decidedly purple state you actually have to appeal to liberal voters to get them to come out and support you (certainly in a non-presidential election year).  It’s not enough to try and convince moderates and conservatives you are not scary.  Before long, this will be the necessary winning strategy for Democrats everywhere but the deepest of the deep South.

Here in NC, while Democratic Attorney General and 2016 Gubernatorial candidate is unlikely to come out hard for gun control, he’s already made a clear statement in support of gay marriage.  That is a pretty clear indication of how the dynamics of Democratic politics are shifting.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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