How Two Candidates Won by 15+ Points in Appalachian Virginia — and Still Lost their Gubernatorial Primaries

How Two Candidates Won by 15+ Points in Appalachian Virginia — and Still Lost their Gubernatorial Primaries
Virgina State Capital building in Richmond, Virginia.

Appalachian Virginia received another lesson last week in its ongoing education on political math.

In the state’s Democratic and Republican primaries, the region voted for liberal populist Tom Perriello and Confederate-defending, conservative firebrand Corey Stewart, respectively. Both lost to more establishment-oriented candidates who succeeded in winning in Virginia’s three major metropolitan areas: Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the suburbs surrounding Richmond.

The disconnect between Appalachia’s favored candidates and the actual winners starkly illustrates the region’s declining influence in Virginia politics.

“Generally speaking, I think cultural attitudes are a big part of all of this,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

The Democratic primary, projected to be a photo finish but in actuality a fairly easy win for current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam.

In Appalachian Regional Commission-designated counties, Perriello won 60.2 percent of the vote to Northam’s 39.8 percent. Statewide, Northam won 55.9 percent to 44.1 percent.

Northam won several counties in the state’s southwest corner, including a few in the coalfields, but Perriello easily carried the vast majority of western and south central Virginia. Why did he do well there?

Perriello represented a congressional district in central Virginia that included the eastern outskirts of Appalachia, and he took a strong stance against proposed natural gas pipelines which are slated to run from West Virginia across the Blue Ridge into the Piedmont. Northam didn’t say he was in favor of the pipelines, but he didn’t say he opposed them either —
effectively straddling the fence by arguing they need to meet environmental standards.

While Perriello won the west and south central, Northam crushed in the north and southeast parts of the state. Because that’s where most voters — and especially most Democratic voters — reside, he also won the statewide contest by a fairly significant margin.

On the Republican side, Stewart won 54 percent of the vote in the ARC counties to Ed Gillespie’s 38.2 percent and Frank Wagner’s 7.7 percent.

Stewart appealed to rural Virginia, including the Appalachian counties, by using the approach taken by Donald Trump, only more so. He claimed to have spent more time in southwest Virginia’s 9th congressional district than any other in the state, and he went after Gillespie by bestowing him with the Trump-esque nickname of “Establishment Ed.” Stewart also was helped by the presence of Wagner, a state senator who leached Republican votes from Gillespie’s left, effectively squeezing him in a pincer movement.

Appalachia was more influential in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary. The ARC counties accounted for 7.0 percent of the overall Republican vote, versus only 3.9 of the overall Democratic vote. Take the geographic size of Appalachian Virginia, consider the amount of travel involved to generate those kinds of voting figures, and you can begin to understand why statewide candidates are spending less time campaigning here than they once did.

The disconnect between election results in Appalachia and those statewide doesn’t bode well for the region’s continued relevance, especially given that the mountain regions of the state are growing more slowly —- and in some cases are losing population outright — than the metropolitan areas. The trend has been moving against mountain Virginia for decades, coinciding with the departure of legacy industries as well as a regional tilt from Democratic to Republican control.

Take, for instance, the 1989 election of Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black governor. Four years earlier, Wilder had made southwest Virginia a cornerstone of his campaign for lieutenant governor, and he built on that foundation in his gubernatorial run. In both elections he was also benefitted by the presence of Mary Sue Terry, a resident of ARC member Patrick County, on the ballot.

Republicans won gubernatorial races in 1993 and 1997, but in 2001 Democrats regained control of the governor’s mansion when Mark Warner ran his “Bubba campaign” with outreach to rural voters through racing, bluegrass music and hunting and fishing.

By this time, Appalachian Virginia had shifted to the GOP in statewide elections, only accelerating after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. Southwest Virginia was part of the coalition that enabled the GOP ticket to sweep the 2009 statewide elections. At the top of that ticket that year, Republican Bob McDonnell defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds — a resident of Appalachia and one of the only three Appalachian Democrats remaining in the current General Assembly. McDonnell notably ran better in Northern Virginia and his home Hampton Roads than previous Republicans, which served to reinforce the power of the state’s rapidly changing demographics.

Since then, however, Democrats have swept every statewide race, including those for president U.S. Senate in 2012, governor and two related positions in 2013, U.S. Senate again in 2014, and president in 2016. As Appalachia has trended Republican, Virginia as a whole has trended Democratic. Last year, the ARC counties voted roughly 2-1 for Trump, even as Hillary Clinton won the state 49.8 percent to 44.4 percent.

What should Appalachian Virginians expect for the general campaign? Few appearances by the candidates, especially on the Democratic side. The three metropolitan areas yielded 79 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, which saw record turnout for a non-presidential primary. Trump’s presidency has evidently energized Democrats, but there are fewer of them in Appalachian Virginia than there were a generation ago.

While Northam will give lip service to Southwest Virginia and even make a few campaign swings, he’s more likely to follow Democratic conventional wisdom in focusing on the urban crescent. After all, the last statewide Democrat to spend much time in the mountains was Mark Warner. The most popular politician in Virginia nearly got picked off by Gillespie in 2014, and afterward he was roundly criticized by members of his party for not focusing tightly enough on voter-rich metro areas.

Gillespie likely will spend more time in Southwest Virginia than Northam — the non-metro part of Virginia yielded 31 percent of the vote in the primary, 10 percentage points more than on the Democratic side — but even he is likely to focus most of his energy in the metro region. After all, it was his performance in Northern Virginia in 2014 that nearly allowed him to defeat Warner.

“You’ve got finite time and resources,” said Skelley. “A huge percentage of the Democratic vote is going to be found in the major metropolitan areas. That’s what makes or breaks it for them. The rest of the state is more important for Gillespie. But it’s also important that he keeps the margin down, particularly in Northern Virginia.”

Victory on Nov. 7 likely will hinge on Virginia’s metro areas more than Appalachian counties. The winner, however, will be faced with governing all of the commonwealth —- including the very real challenges faced by the those who live in its western mountains.

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. 

Data visualizations by Dave Mistich.

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