Virginia’s Rural-Urban Divide Takes Center Stage in Tuesday’s Gubernatorial Primary

Virginia’s Rural-Urban Divide Takes Center Stage in Tuesday’s Gubernatorial Primary

Virginia will make history on Tuesday: For the first time, both of its political parties are holding concurrent primaries for governor, with two Democrats and three Republicans running for their party’s nomination.

None of the five candidates are from the Appalachian part of the state, which is not necessarily surprising. The commonwealth’s western counties have grown at a slower rate than the rest of Virginia. Its legislative and congressional districts have grown larger, with fewer representatives and vote-courting visits by statewide candidates.

Yet Virginia’s Appalachian counties aren’t going away. They continue to face many longtime challenges such as an aging population, slow-growth rates and transportation bottlenecks, as well as newer ones, including the monumental task of modernizing a regional economy based around extractive industries that have waned from their peaks as dominant employers.

Like much of the United States, Virginia faces sharp divisions between rural areas that vote Republican and urban areas that vote Democratic, with suburbs acting as the decider. Demographic shifts over the last few decades have swung the balance toward cities and suburbs, especially in northern Virginia and the coastal Hampton Roads area. Fairfax County, which neighbors Washington, D.C., on the west bank of the Potomac River, was home to 1.1 million people, more than either the entire 6th or 9th congressional districts, and getting increasingly close to as many as the two combined.

That population shift has resulted in a noticeable change in political strategy, especially among Democrats, whose base resides in the state’s more urban region. The evolution over the last three decades has been noticeable.

In 1985, then-state senator Doug Wilder began his campaign in Cumberland Gap and spent significant amounts of time traveling Appalachian Virginia in a station wagon on route to making history as the first African American to win statewide election. Four years later he built on that start to become the first black governor in the U.S. He was aided in Appalachia by his ticket-mate in both elections, Mary Sue Terry of Patrick County, who was elected as attorney general in both of those elections before she herself ran for governor and lost in 1993. She remains the only woman to have won statewide office in Virginia.

After back-to-back victories by Republican governors, Democratic tech magnate Mark Warner enlisted consultants in 2001 to develop a “Bubba strategy” that involved a campaign theme song set to the tune of the Dillards’ bluegrass song “Dooley,” sponsorship of a truck in a NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and a coordinated effort to build hunters and fishermen into “Sportsmen for Warner.” Four years later, however, Warner’s lieutenant governor and current fellow U.S. Senator Tim Kaine strayed from that model by shifting his focus to suburban and urban Virginia.

Democrats still visit Appalachia during campaigns, but the emphasis has moved, perhaps permanently, toward the state’s more populous regions. And why not? Democrats can point to a string of wins as evidence that it works: Headed into this election cycle, they hold all five elected statewide posts.

“You’ve got more representation by members of the General Assembly in Fairfax than you do in all of southwest Virginia-plus,” said Mary Sue Terry. “There’s not only a population shift that affects legislation and public policy in Richmond [the state capital], but it also affects campaigning because there just aren’t as many votes out here.”

Jerry Kilgore came up in Scott County before moving to Richmond in 1993. He was elected attorney general in 2001 and ran for governor four years later but lost to Kaine.

“Every year growing up, Buchanan County had this rally every year on the Sunday before the election,” Kilgore said. “Grundy, Virginia, was the place to be, whether you were a Democrat or Republican running for statewide office. I went there year because those were the biggest rallies in the entire region, because southwest Virginia was so competitive. But now the Democrats stay on the coast, and it’s only the Republicans who go out to the [Shenandoah] Valley, Southside and rural Virginia. It’s sort of like the whole state’s been gerrymandered to where we have an eastern and western district, and there’s no competition for either.”

State Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County is one of the only Democrats in the state to hold a rural district, although it also includes the liberal university enclave of Charlottesville. Deeds lost the 2005 race for attorney general by an exceedingly narrow margin, then the 2009 race for governor. He recalls just a decade ago, when Labor Day parades in Buena Vista and Covington, both located in Appalachia, served as high-energy, well-attended kickoffs of the fall campaign season.

“Last Labor Day, we had three state Democratic office holders — the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — plus the two Democratic U.S. senators, and none of them came to either one,” said Deeds. “That’s just hard to believe, and kind of discouraging.”

With the statewide races, 2017’s Labor Day parades are likely to be much better attended. Although, Democrats hold a demographic edge, Republicans remain competitive. The GOP swept the 2009 statewide elections, just as Democrats did four years later. Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly. Although all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election this year, Republicans hold such a large majority that even a big wave of Democratic wins would likely still keep the GOP in control.

All five candidates for governor at least pledge lip service to Appalachian Virginia, although their policy proposals vary even within party.

Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam lined up the pieces for his gubernatorial run a couple of years ago, meaning that he carries the bulk of endorsements by elected Democrats. A physician from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Northam speaks not as much about Appalachia as “rural Virginia,” a broader region that includes not just the mountains but Southside and rural stretches along the coast. He’s called for better broadband internet and cellular service; more investment in workforce development for cybersecurity, unmanned vehicles, biotechnology and other fields; and expansion of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, which is located in the state’s coalfields.

His challenger, Tom Perriello, served a term in Congress from 2008-10, representing a central Virginia district that included pieces of Appalachian counties. Perriello grew up in Albemarle County, and his campaign ads in 2008 and now demonstrate a facility with talking to rural voters, even as he runs to Northam’s left. Perriello said he sees “pain but also a lot of potential” in Appalachia, and he targeted his campaign not so much against Northam but rather President Donald Trump. Perriello said he wants to break up monopolies in the energy sector and spread it among small businesses and even farmers.

The two Democrats have split most sharply on the question of two interstate natural gas pipelines proposed to run from West Virginia into Virginia. Northam, like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said that a federal board ultimately will determine the fate of the proposals, and indeed they’re slated for decisions that will likely occur before the new governor takes office. Perriello, however, argued the governor can do more to protect the environment and landowners along the pipeline routes, and that even candidates can sway the process.

Republicans have a different approach, focusing more on boosting the region’s coal industry and cutting taxes. Frontrunner Ed Gillespie, who nearly knocked off Mark Warner in 2014, calls for a combination of lower taxes and investments in transportation, broadband and cellular infrastructure to boost small businesses. Gillespie said he also wants to do more to connect Appalachian and rural Virginia with the state’s more prosperous urban regions, both in marketing and investment.

State Sen. Frank Wagner has based much of his campaign around transportation infrastructure, calling for a gas tax increase to fund road construction projects across the state. He cited the Virginia portion of the Coalfields Expressway as a priority, along with an inland port along Interstate 81 that would be connected to the Port of Virginia by rail. Wagner pointed to an existing inland port near Front Royal, which has spurred private investment in nearby distribution centers and even manufacturing.

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, wants to do three things for southwest Virginia: Build out the Coalfields Expressway, reinstate a coal tax credit, and eliminate the income tax altogether in counties bordering Kentucky and Tennessee. Stewart has vociferously criticized the removal of Confederate statues and monuments as “political correctness gone mad.” He courted controversy as the only major-party candidate that declined to condemn a rally led by white supremacist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But Stewart said in an interview this week that he had condemned it, adding, “They’re trying to hijack this issue and make it about race.”

The Democratic and Republican primaries are set for Tuesday. The general election victor will be faced with tackling Appalachian Virginia’s challenges, no matter how much time they spend — or don’t — in the region between now and November.

A native of the Alleghany Highlands, Mason Adams (@MasonAtoms) has worked as a journalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains since 2001. He lives with his family plus dogs, cats, chickens and dairy goats in Floyd County, Virginia. 

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