A new bellwether for America

Jim Webb's victory, handing the Senate to the Dems, completes Virginia's transformation from reliably red into something more muted -- and more reflective of a changing national politics.

Garrett Epps
November 10, 2006 7:00PM (UTC)

If you had a chance to meet Thomas Harris, author of "The Silence of the Lambs," would you be afraid the novelist might eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice red wine?

On Thursday, Republican Sen. George Allen conceded defeat to Democrat Jim Webb, shifting control of the U.S. Senate into Democratic hands for the next two years. The exit polls show that the election turned on voters' feelings about the Iraq war. Allen supported the Bush policy; Webb, a combat veteran, is a critic. Virginia's voters, for the most serious of reasons, made a decision that has changed the country.


A newspaper reader would be forgiven, however, for believing that the Virginia election had really turned on such aesthetic questions as the relationship between a novelist and his characters. In addition to being a decorated combat veteran and a former secretary of the Navy, Jim Webb is also a novelist. In some of his books, bad things happened to women and children. In probably the only work of feminist literary criticism in his slim oeuvre, George Allen announced that Webb's war novels reveal "chauvinistic attitudes and sexually exploitive references." Allen refused to say whether he had ever read any of Webb's books, though he did say he had been reading "initiatives and ideas."

Webb survived Allen's searing charge that he is a "fiction novelist." Other ostensible issues in the race included the etymology of a racial slur used by Francophone imperialists in the Congo, whether George Allen really didn't know that his mother was Jewish, or whether Jim Webb really once thought the national service academies were "a horny woman's dream."

But those "issues" were simply the Old Dominion's perennial political opera buffa. Remember, this is the state where, in 2005, one candidate accused the other of being pro-Hitler because he opposed the death penalty. A serious drama took place in Virginia this year, one that had been in the making since at least 2001. For all its trappings of the past -- lovingly preserved Civil War battlefields, restored plantations, Jeffersonian academic buildings -- Virginia has been moving away from the airtight red world of the Republican South and into a new status as a kind of bellwether state. The land of Lee and Byrd is now the home of AOL and Sprint Nextel; the world of family and clan is now also the haven of immigrant and outsider. Some moment in the past decade marked a tipping point, the moment at which a reliable red state becomes something far more muted in color.

In the past decade, Virginia's presidential behavior has begun to diverge from that of its red neighbors to the South. Republican presidential candidates have carried Virginia every year -- but by slender margins. In 1996, Bob Dole took Virginia by less than 2 percent of the vote -- less than half his margin in North Carolina. Bush beat Kerry in Virginia by roughly 8 percent -- a much smaller margin than in North Carolina, which had a native son on the ballot. And the parts of the state that respond to moderate, centrist candidates are the parts that are growing.

Some reports suggest that Allen is eager to maintain his viability as a candidate to replace the aging Sen. John Warner, whose term expires in 2008. But an argument can be made that Allen is a young man with a brilliant future behind him -- that it will get harder to elect a hard-edged Bush-style conservative from Virginia with each passing year. When we look for the future of American politics, we may be able to descry much of its shape in Virginia.

This is not one of the perennial complaints that Virginia isn't "really" the South anymore. Parts of Virginia are as Southern as Biloxi, Miss., or Doraville, Ga. But Virginia now contains multitudes: upscale suburbs in northern Virginia that mimic the behavior of similar neighborhoods in Illinois or Massachusetts; a military-dominated port district in the east that responds to defense issues; big, ethnically diverse cities in the center that play urban politics by the rules of St. Louis or Cleveland. And in the midst of this microcosm, the state has spawned a sharp political class that seems to have borrowed a slogan from George Allen, the football coach: The future is now.


Virginia as political laboratory goes back at least 30 years. Looking back, we can see that the state has consistently foretold where the nation was going to be in a few years. Richard Viguerie pioneered computer-generated right-wing direct mail from his headquarters in northern Virginia. Jerry Falwell inaugurated the Moral Majority in Lynchburg; Pat Robertson (son of a Virginia senator) began his Christian Right broadcast empire in Virginia Beach. In 1976, a near-bankrupt Virginia Republican Party hired as its finance director a young nerd named Karl Rove. Much of the flavor and formula of Reaganism grew out of 1970s Virginia.

During the 1980s, moderate Democrats -- Charles Robb, Gerald Baliles and L. Douglas Wilder -- ran the state, pioneering what would later be Clinton-style New Democrat themes: fiscal prudence, social moderation and racial reconciliation (nearly two decades before Deval Patrick, Wilder was the first African-American ever elected governor of any state). In the 1990s, Republican governors Allen and Jim Gilmore provided a foretaste of the Bush approach to governing -- ideological, polarizing, top-down and relatively heedless of the real-world consequences of their actions. As Bush himself is learning, that is a style of governing that voters grow tired of. Moderate Democrats now rule Richmond, and Webb, a very conservative Democrat in combat boots, has snatched the Senate seat out from under Allen, a former future president in cowboy boots.

Race, of course, played an interesting role in the election. Consider the contrast between Virginia and Tennessee: George Allen had to apologize repeatedly for seeming to deride a voter for his race; Bob Corker, on the other hand, paid no political price when his supporters ran an openly racist TV commercial suggesting that Rep. Harold Ford, an African-American, might have sex with an adorable Southern blonde.

But the exit polls show that the core of the Virginia race was Iraq. Those who approve of the war, and who favor keeping or expanding the current U.S. force there, went overwhelmingly for Allen. Those who disapproved, and who want the troops to start coming home, went for Webb.


Getting the United States out of Iraq without disaster is going to be difficult job. Virginia mirrors the nation in its reservations about the war; and by the narrowest of margins, its voters have apparently decided to trust a man who has written a few books rather than another man who seems unwilling to admit having read even one.

Let's hope that too becomes a national trend.

Garrett Epps

Garrett Epps is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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2006 Elections Virginia

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