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National Journal: Demographic Changes Allow Terry McAuliffe to Embrace Progressive Politics in Virginia

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Yesterday, Latino Decisions published a new presentation on immigration reform politics in California and what it means for Republicans there and the GOP nationwide.  We know the story well: in 1994, California Republicans pushed through a horribly anti-immigrant law (Prop 187) that drove Latinos into the arms of Democrats.  The progressive realignment that happened in California as a result continues to have a significant impact today.

National Journal today has a piece on a similar phenomenon happening in Virginia, where this year’s gubernatorial race is underscoring the fact that a dramatic demographic change is underway in the state.  Polls show Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the lead over Tea Party Republican Ken Cuccinelli, in an election where McAuliffe seems to be depending on “ascendant” voters rather than the rural white voters who have held sway in the past.  As Ron Brownstein writes:

Virginia Democrats historically have sought a cautious middle ground on such questions, largely in hope of holding culturally conservative blue-collar, evangelical, and rural white voters long considered indispensable to statewide success. But McAuliffe has repeatedly adopted liberal social positions that ensure repeated conflicts with those voters—while providing fuel to energize the Democrats’ new “coalition of the ascendant” centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and white-collar white voters, especially women. All of this has established a cavernous contrast with Cuccinelli, an unflinching conservative culture warrior, who has pushed the envelope of opposition to abortion, gay rights, and illegal immigration, as well as Obama’s health care and environmental policies…

Shifting population patterns have allowed—even pressured—Virginia Democrats to execute this shift. Geographically, as my colleague David Wasserman has calculated, socially liberal Northern Virginia, swelled by a vibrant technology sector, is steadily marching toward 30 percent of the statewide vote. Meanwhile, the downscale white Appalachian counties that Republicans have targeted with their “war on coal” campaign against McAuliffe (and Obama) have dipped to less than 10 percent.

Perhaps a more moderate Republican would’ve had an easier time competing for Northern Virginia voters–a fact Cuccinelli seems to understand, considering that he was caught this year trying to scrub his website clean of hardline anti-immigrant positions.  But as someone who once compared immigrants to rats and called Steve King “one of my very favorite Congressmen,” Cuccinelli needed to do more to attract out-of-base voters, and he didn’t.

To their credit, the McAuliffe campaign seems to understand that he can’t take the coalition of voters he’s counting on for granted.  That’s a lesson that President Obama learned last year, when he needed to motivate Latinos to turn out for the 2012 election and decided to announce his deferred action for DREAMers (DACA) program.  From the National Journal piece:

Like the president, McAuliffe has endorsed gay marriage; universal background checks for gun purchases; an assault-weapons ban; a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally; a mandate on employers offering health insurance to include free contraception coverage; and limits on carbon emissions from new coal-fired power plants. He would also reverse the tight restrictions on abortion clinics championed by state Republicans led by Cuccinelli and outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell…

That evolution suggests Virginia Democrats have increasingly decided that failing to motivate their “coalition of the ascendant” is a greater electoral risk than alienating right-leaning whites…“It is difficult to create enthusiasm and engagement among both Democratic voters and Democratic activists if you don’t step up on these issues,” said Geoff Garin, McAuliffe’s pollster.

Demographic change is happening across the country, from California to Virginia to deep-red states like Arizona and Texas.  If Republicans don’t adapt–by finding ways to come to the table on issues like immigration reform–they’ll perish.  As the National Journal article ends:

[This election in Virginia is] “a turning point,” says former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican who represented a district in Northern Virginia. “If the party stays steadfast on their [cultural] issues, it is going to go the way of Republicans in California. The demographics, and the issue matrix, have changed right underneath them.”