The Silicon Dominion skews right

Virginia's booming high-tech industry helps the GOP wrest control of the state government away from the Democrats for the first time in history.

By Alicia Montgomery
Published November 3, 1999 11:30AM (EST)

At first glance, it's hard to imagine an election yielding a more clear-cut result than that which emerged from Virginia Tuesday. Fueled by a record level of campaign donations, including a massive amount from the high-tech industry, the GOP achieved majorities in both houses of the Virginia legislature for the first time in history. This marks the first time since the Reconstruction era that the Democrats do not control at least one of the state's legislative bodies.

So, naturally, the Republicans are ecstatic. But national and local party officials trying to sell Tuesday's win as a sudden political sea change may be stretching things a bit. In his triumphant speech Tuesday night, Republican Gov. James Gilmore labeled the results "a victory for conservatism," though in fact there was no discernable rallying point or issue for conservatives in this particular election.

And while Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson declared the Virginia elections "a referendum on the Clinton-Gore administration," the Democratic Party didn't actually put up much of a battle to prevent what was generally considered inevitable. In the end, the incumbents from both parties pretty much retained control of their seats.

"The headlines will treat this like it's World War III," says Larry Sabato, professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. "[But] it's more like Grenada."

In truth, the Republican victory was more the result of a gradual, decades-long regional migration away from Democrats and toward the GOP.

Like their fellow southern Democrats, Virginians who have voted Republican nationally since the Reagan years have usually stuck with moderate or conservative Democrat incumbents locally. However, as those representatives have retired in recent times, the newly vacant seats have tended to slowly drift over to the Republicans.

"At the end of the last [legislative] session, retirements opened up seats held by Democrats in Republican-leaning areas," explains Bill Wood, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. "The natural successors to those seats are Republicans."

Wood further explains that Virginia's Democratic legislators never mounted much of a resistance to the conservative agenda of the former Gov. George Allen, who left office two years ago, in any event -- which leaves rather little for the new Republican team to do. "The problem for Gilmore -- if you can call it that -- is that welfare reform, lowering taxes, abolishing parole have all been done."

This time around, a massive fund-raising advantage helped tilt indifferent races toward the Republicans. Gilmore and U.S. Rep. Tom Davis led fund-raising efforts that generated more than $4 million for the local races, while national Republican committees added $1.2 million to the campaign kitty. In comparison, the Democratic national leadership managed only a paltry $450,000 in defense of its outgunned candidates.

The increasingly influential high-tech companies in Northern Virginia played a major part in keeping local Republicans in the chips. Companies like America Online and Electronic Data Systems, which have turned Virginia into what's known as the "Silicon Dominion," have gone from being political bystanders to major players in local politics. This election cycle, the tech industry gave $1.5 million to legislative candidates, over two-thirds of that to Republicans.

This newfound partisan support seems to contradict the image of what is normally described as a politically agnostic industry. "The industry remains detached and unimpressed by the political process," maintains Douglas Koelemay, vice president for public affairs of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a group representing 1,200 local high-tech firms. He says that the sector's interests frequently cross party lines. "We're for education and job training. Those are primarily Democratic issues. We're also for letting the private sector -- not the government -- decide on the direction of our business. That's a Republican issue."

Koelemay has a simple explanation for the disproportionate funding advantage enjoyed by the Virginia GOP: The power of incumbency. Both Gilmore and former governor Allen have been aggressive in establishing a pro-business environment in Virginia, and have been especially welcoming to high-tech. The business community, in turn, understands how to keep its bread buttered. "If you are going to give money at the state level," says Koelemay, "give it to the governor." (Virginia law keeps governors to one term apiece, but while in office, they can be powerful fund-raisers for their parties.)

The long-term prospects for the GOP in Virginia now look rosy indeed. The sitting U.S. senator considered by many to be the most vulnerable in next year's elections, Democrat Chuck Robb, faces a very strong challenge from popular ex-governor Allen. And with the entire state government now under its control, the GOP can insure that the redistricting that occurs from the 2000 census carves out several new districts that will maximize the party's advantage well into the future.

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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