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Election Watch

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. 

Election Watch

Progressive Wins in Virginia are Limited as Long as “Dillon’s Rule” is on the Books



The Virginia State Capitol. Photo: WikiMedia commons.

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

Last week’s elections delivered an overwhelming victory for progressives in Virginia, where Democrats solidified a majority in the General Assembly and candidates in local races followed suit. In Charlottesville, where the deadly white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally took place two years ago, voters elected a slate of progressive candidates to the city council, including an activist, Michael Payne, who is endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

But the gap between electing progressive officials and enacting progressive policies is a wide one. An ongoing court battle over the Confederate statues at the center of the white nationalist rally shows how a little-known legal rule has been used to hamstring local democracy across the state.

On September 13, 2019, Charlottesville, Virginia Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore overruled the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove its public statues of the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

The council had voted to remove the Lee statue in February 2017 and later voted to remove the Jackson statue. As the council voted to remove the monuments, the racist legacy of the Southern generals came into focus.

A national movement to remove Confederate monuments was gaining momentum after Dylann Roof’s 2015 Confederacy-inspired massacre at the African American Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Following the white supremacist killings, statutes of Lee were targeted for removal. Many of the monuments had been erected by reactionaries in the early 1900s, by a movement to justify the Confederacy and reframe the South’s defeat in the Civil War. However, the myth that Lee somehow “abhorred slavery” has by now been intensely challenged. A piece in the The Atlantic in 2017 effectively debunked the myth, by making clear he held white supremacist views and treated his slaves brutally.

Two months after the council’s decision to remove the Lee statute, a small group of local residents sued the city of Charlottesville, arguing the local government had overstepped its authority.

That August, white nationalists violently marched on the city at the “Unite the Right” rally to defend the statue. The rally would lead to the death of 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer, and two state officers who died in a helicopter crash while patrolling the rally.

In this context, Judge Moore’s ruling dealt an obvious blow to those seeking to challenge the rising tide of white supremacy. But there’s another, critical implication that has received less attention. This lawsuit reaffirms a rule that’s been thwarting progressive policy-making by cities and counties across the country.

A lesser-known element of the lawsuit against the city is its argument that the city resolutions violated a century-old legal doctrine referred to in Virginia, as the “Dillon Rule.” That rule, also referred to as “Dillon’s Rule,” is named after a corporate railroad attorney and eventual judge named John F. Dillon. To this day, he is credited with pioneering a judicial attack on municipalities at the peak of post-Civil War Reconstruction—a time of heightened African American electoral participation following the emancipation of slaves and expansion of suffrage to African American men.

Dillon became well-known for a legal treatise he wrote in 1873 called The Law of Municipal Corporations which raised alarms about local governments that were trying to redistribute wealth and expand democratic participation in local public services. Populations of urban immigrants were booming. At the time, there were numerous legal battles over local governments’ powers to tax property owners —who were overwhelmingly white—and set labor standards for city contractors. In a Yale University lecture, Dillon called laws that tax property “discrimination legislation” that infringes on property rights, and urged his audience to “fear and guard against… the despotism of the many,—of the majority.”

Similar arguments that upheld the “rightful enjoyment” of property, as he wrote, were at the time also being used to protect property owners’ “rights” to discriminate in private places, and shield them from taxation. His treatise argued—in reactionary fashion—that local governments only possess those powers which states explicitly grant them.

This idea has morphed into a legal doctrine that blankets the nation.

In 1891, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively applied Dillon’s Rule to all American communities by citing it in a ruling that said an Indiana town didn’t have the authority to sell bonds. The Court later reaffirmed and broadened Dillon’s Rule in 1907. Since then, it’s been used to undermine community democracy in many states.

Just as it was used in the late 1800s, Dillon’s Rule was a tool the State of Michigan used to successfully defend dissolving the power of half a dozen majority African American city governments after the financial crisis of 2008 (including Detroit and Flint). It has been used to defend the Alabama State Legislature’s restrictions on the governing powers of Birmingham, a majority-African American city, and other cities. Everywhere, it defines fundamental power dynamics. The rule is rigorously defended by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative corporate-led, state-level policy network.

Some states, such as Michigan, identify as “Home Rule” states. There, local governments enjoy some assumed local self-governing authority. However, this authority is superficial compared to the deeper influence Dillon’s Rule wields, which allows state legislators to unilaterally redefine and restrict what those “Home Rule” powers are, at their whim. “Home Rule” did not protect the power of the Detroit and Flint city councils from being gutted.

That’s because, under Dillon’s Rule, there is no check on how far a state can go in usurping local democracy.

The impact of Dillon’s Rule in Charlottesville is not limited to the fight over statues. Following the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally there was an effort to ban assault weapons in public spaces. That too was prohibited by Dillon’s Rule.

A local movement also successfully lobbied the city to pursue racial justice reforms. This activism led the city to consider affordable housing reforms that were seen as a benefit to the African American community. It was a concrete response to the white nationalist rally.

But, according to Dillon’s Rule, the city had limited power to enact meaningful affordable housing measures. The Virginia General Assembly hadn’t granted the city authority to pass something as simple as an inclusionary zoning ordinance to require developers set aside a percentage of new developments as “affordable.” That reform—much less anything stronger—also never went forward.

Charlottesville community members also mobilized to establish a stronger civilian review panel to process complaints against local police officers. These efforts were also stymied by the legislature, which, thanks to Dillon’s Rule, does not allow subpoena powers for Charlottesville’s review board.

This form of repression is not unique to Virginia, Alabama, or Michigan. In communities across the nation, local movements are stymied from raising the minimum wage, governing the fossil fuel industry, heightening civil rights protections, and otherwise weighing in on key societal questions.

However, despite the racially-disproportionate impacts of Dillon’s Rule, demands for more local democracy are often misunderstood and confused with demands for racist libertarianism. That’s why communities that work with Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which I work for, challenges Dillon’s Rule in a way that maintains a commitment to state and federal protections for civil and human rights, while fighting for local communities’ rights to increase and expand those protections.

CELDF works with local governments and local grassroots groups that aim to make fundamental change to state constitutional law, including abolishing Dillon’s Rule. This means redefining state law as a “floor” that local governments have a right to build upon, in order to heighten protections for civil and human rights—just as federal law acts as a “floor” upon which states can increase protections. It means recognizing some constitutional democratic powers for local democracy, and moving away from the system we have today—where states remain unconstrained in their repression of local laws.

CELDF has worked with nearly 200 municipalities and Native nations across ten states that have adopted laws that embody this vision. Our partners are advancing state constitutional change and have passed and advanced local laws that challenge Dillon’s Rule.

Opposition to Dillon’s Rule is gaining some momentum in Virginia, where CELDF has organized with communities. The new Democratic majority has made some promises about allowing local governments more authority to take down racist statues. However, its support for structural change to reverse Dillon’s Rule is far from clear. And it will take more than a simple electoral majority to make such transformative change.

In Charlottesville, the battle over statues continues. Supporters of the Confederate monuments are pressing the city to spend money to protect the statues from vandalism. The city on the other hand is now appealing Judge Moore’s ruling, arguing the statues send a racist message. They will likely get some help from the new legislature.

One Charlottesville activist I spoke to told me, “I wish a thousand locals and [University of Virginia] students would put a chain over [the statutes] and pull them down.”

Simon Davis-Cohen writes and makes films about criminal justice, local democracy, and the law. He does research and communications for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. You can sign up for his nationwide “Ear to the Ground” newsletter — cataloguing state legislation, grassroots news, legal developments, and local media — at:

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Election Watch

Analysis: Rural Voters Contributed to Kentucky Democrat’s Victory



Republican Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin speaks with reporters as he conceded the gubernatorial race to democrat Andy Beshear in Frankfort, Ky., Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Democrat Andy Beshear made gains in rural counties, compared to the 2015 gubernatorial race. While Republican Matt Bevin still won the rural vote, his margin was slimmer, contributing to Beshear’s 5,000-vote margin of victory.

Kentucky’s Democratic Governor-elect Andy Beshear built big leads with voters in the state’s largest cities, but his improved performance with rural voters was an essential part of his 5,000-vote victory over incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin.

Turnout was up in all areas of the state. Thanks to energies unleashed by Trump’s 2016 election, almost 50 percent more people voted in the Beshear-Bevin race than the previous Governor’s race in 2015.

But contrary to the popular perception that remote rural areas are voting increasingly Republican, turnout for Beshear in rural areas of Kentucky grew 30 percent more relatively (or 15 percent absolutely, 55 percent to 40 percent) than it did for Bevin. 

The most striking example of this shift was in Eastern Kentucky, where Beshear won five counties that had voted 70 percent for Trump and four counties averaging in the high 60 percent range.

The results in Kentucky illuminate what Democratically aligned political strategists are calling “a remarkable amount of opportunities” to mobilize support for Democratic candidates among rural voters.

“We will 100 percent be focused on cutting into Trump’s support with rural working-class voters,” Shripal Shah, vice president for American Bridge PAC, told The Hill during their $50 million advertising campaign launch back in September.  “Over the course of this summer [we] found a remarkable amount of opportunities.”

To understand how Beshear’s support varied across the urban-rural spectrum, I use the USDA Rural Urban Continuum Codes (RUCs). These codes classify every U.S. county on a spectrum of 1 (most Metro) to 9 (most Rural).

To simplify this specific analysis, I broke these nine codes into four categories

  • Large Metros(RUCs 1-2) – Census designated metro counties of 250.000 population or more
  • Small Metros(RUC 3) – Census designated metro counties less than 250.000
  • Rural Adjacent(RUCs 4,6,8) Non-Metro counties adjacent to census designated metro counties
  • Rural Remote(RUCs 5,7,9) Non-Metro counties not adjacent to census designated metro counties

Here’s how the 2019 Kentucky electorate breaks down according to these four categories:

  • About 50 percent of Kentucky voters live in Large Metros.
  • About 25 percent live in Rural Remote areas
  • About 25 percent live in Small Metros OR Rural Adjacent areas

Using this county-level classification helps standardize definitions of “rural” and ensure consistent data analysis between different states and election cycles. And through this approach, we can draw more specific conclusions about the performance of rural voters during the 2019 Kentucky governor’s race.

As noted above, Beshear significantly improved Democratic performance in rural counties compared to the Democrat candidate running for governor in 2015. But a clearer picture of recent rural voter trends in Kentucky emerges when including the results of the 2016 presidential election in Kentucky.

This analysis clearly demonstrates how the Trump wave flooded the state in 2016. It also shows that Democrats maintained or improved Clinton’s 2016 turnout levels in 2019 with Beshear on the ballot while Republican turnout dropped dramatically from Trump in 2016 to Bevin in 2019.

In other words, Clinton’s base turned out for Beshear, but Trump’s base stayed home for Bevin.

Though Beshear picked up roughly 20,000 more voters in Kentucky’s Large Metro areas, he still would have lost to Bevin by nearly 30,000 votes if he had only matched Clinton’s 2016 turnout in Remote Non-metro Counties.

With numbers like this, it’s no wonder Democratically aligned political strategists are seeing “a remarkable amount of opportunities” among rural voters.

Matthew Hildreth is political strategist with the Rural Democracy Initiative and executive director of

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Election Watch

Where the Vote Shifted in Kentucky from 2015 to 2019



Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, right, with his wife Glenna, speaks to supporters gathered at the republican party celebration event in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Photo: Timothy D. Easley/AP Photo

Andy Beshear’s lead in the Kentucky gubernatorial race came largely from cities and suburbs. But a shift toward the Democratic candidate occurred across the state, compared to the 2015 governor’s election.

This time, it really was the cities and suburbs.

The television maps of Kentucky’s vote Tuesday night appeared to show that a shift in rural areas was a decisive factor in Democrat Steve Beshear’s apparent victory in the governor’s race. And there was a movement in that direction, especially in parts of Eastern Kentucky.

But the areas that gave the Democrat a lead over incumbent Governor Matt Bevin were in the state’s major cities and close-in suburbs.

The map above shows the shift in the percent of people voting for Democrats from the 2015 governor’s race (won by Republican Bevin) to this week’s contest. Only 39 of Kentucky’s 120 counties were more Republican this week than four years earlier. Almost all counties were rural or exurban (the remotest suburbs) and they are concentrated in the western portion of the state.

The counties that moved most strongly toward the Democrats were central city counties of the major metro regions of the state and their suburbs (including those neighboring Cincinnati, Ohio). Of the seven counties where Democrats increased their share by 10 percentage points from 2015, five were attached to major metro areas.

There was a strong Democratic trend in a number of Eastern Kentucky counties. Magoffin, Knott and Perry counties (all once dependent on the coal industry) had some of the strongest Democratic shifts in the state.

But since the urban and suburban counties have much larger populations than rural counties, most of the surge in Democratic votes was tied to the cities. Democrats increased their total vote by 283,000 from 2015 to 2019. Nearly two-thirds of that increase (177,000 votes) came from the state’s major cities or suburbs.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of that increase came from just two counties, the central parts of Louisville (Jefferson County) and Lexington (Fayette County).

Explore an interactive map of Kentucky’s election results here.

The increase in voter turnout was massive in Kentucky, compared to 2015. The Democratic vote increased by 66 percent from 2015 to 2019. The Republican turnout increased by 37.7 percent – a huge gain but not enough to offset the Democratic surge.

The Democratic vote in downtown Lexington nearly doubled.

The Washington Post has a sophisticated analysis of the urban, suburban and rural shifts in Kentucky’s elections. It finds that the split between central cities and counties farther from city centers has widened since 2015.

The Yonder finds the same widening gap. For example, there was a 22.5 percentage point difference in the Democratic vote between Louisville (Jefferson County) and the state’s most rural counties in 2015. This week, the gap was 29.6 points.

Bill Bishop is a contributing editor and co-founder of the Daily Yonder.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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