The Washington Post this weekend profiled the Chesterfield County, Virginia, as a possible warning sign to Republicans. The county voted for a Democrat for governor this year for the first time since 1961. Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee and governor-elect, narrowly defeated Republican Ed Gillespie though Republican nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general both carried the county. Still, the suburban county just south of Richmond looks a lot like fast growing suburban counties in swing states like North Carolina.
A dozen years ago, I oversaw a race for House of Delegates that foreshadowed the Democratic victory there. Back then, my candidate was an independent, not a Democrat. The district included parts of Richmond in addition to much of Chesterfield. The emerging electorate, though, reflected the one that gave Northam his victory.
My candidate in 2005 was a woman named Katherine Waddell. Katherine was a lifelong Republican who had supported every GOP candidate in Virginia since the 1960s. She was a strong fiscal conservative but socially liberal. She led an organization of pro-choice Republican women that came into conflict with the state’s GOP leadership. By 2005, she felt her views on issues like abortion and gay rights had no place in the party and she filed to run as an independent.
At the time, the 68th House District was held by a strong social conservative named Brad Marrs. Marrs had introduced legislation that sharply reduced access to contraception which we found to be out of sync with the suburban voters who made up the district. Katherine didn’t need to win Chesterfield, but she needed to make inroads into the county to offset Marrs’ firewall there.
We effectively defined Katherine as a fiscal conservative who supported public schools while defining Marrs as out of touch with the more socially progressive suburbanites who were transforming Chesterfield. Our strategy worked. Katherine beat Marrs by a mere 42 votes. She was helped by a popular Democrat, Tim Kaine, at the top of the ticket but we also peeled off votes that Democrats found unreachable.
Katherine’s race foreshadowed the changes coming to suburban counties like Chesterfield. In 2005, they weren’t necessarily ready to jump behind a Democrat, but they also found the socially conservative policies of the Virginia GOP unappealing. We gave them an option and enough people from Chesterfield took that choice to send home an incumbent whose views they found too extreme. Ralph Northam apparently found those folks even more willing to support a moderate progressive.
In North Carolina, we have a number of areas like Chesterfield on the outskirts of Charlotte and Raleigh. The voters don’t want their taxes to get any higher but they also support public schools and reject the social conservatism that defines more rural communities. Democrats need to find candidates who can split that difference. If they do, they can make inroads into GOP control, especially with the help of the looming blue wave.