Respond to this Article September 2004

Rebels in Izods

Why Virginia is tilting toward Kerry

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

The strangest thing about states is that they actually have characteristics. Start on the bank of a river, sweep down over thousands of square miles of American turf, farms, suburbs, and cities, and stop at a line of longitude; it's not exactly a likely method for creating a unique culture. And yet somehow, again and again, it does. Vermont is only split from New Hampshire by a skinny river and a line slapped on a map, but its culture is completely distinct, organic spinach versus the Old Man of the Mountain. Residents of Massachusetts think Rhode Islanders are parochial, and Iowans think Kansans are hopeless hicks. And people who move to Virginia from neighboring North Carolina or West Virginia believe that they have traded up in the world, to a state that's more prosperous and classy, the heart of the Southern establishment.

It is this cultural difference that explains one of the mysteries of the current presidential race: John Kerry, the Massachusetts Yankee, is doing rather well here. He launched his campaign at Norfolk Naval base with an aircraft carrier in the background, and went on to crush Sen. John Edwards, a native from North Carolina, in the state's March primary. Most observers had thought that if Kerry stood any chance in the South, it would be in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana--the states which Clinton won and Gore came closest to taking. But soon after he became his party's presumptive nominee, a strange pattern kept popping up in the polls: In Virginia, not considered a swing-state, Kerry stayed close behind President Bush. State Republicans called it a mere blip, complained that the race was still young, and grumbled when local papers called them up to ask whether Bush might lose the state come November. Political scientists and pollsters mostly agreed that a Virginia win would be a long-shot for the man from Massachusetts. But by the eve of the Democratic convention in late July, Kerry and Bush were in a statistical dead-heat, and while Kerry's campaign chose to pull its Television advertising from Louisiana and Arkansas, it kept buying ads in Virginia. Six months ago, Larry Sabato, the esteemed University of Virginia political scientist, told reporters that Kerry was a dead duck in the state. Now, he tells me, Virginia is still Bush's to lose--but Bush may very well lose it.

A win for Kerry in Virginia, or even a competitive finish here, would qualify as fairly stunning political news. Virginia is commonly thought of as the seat of the South, a place of countless shrines to Confederate warriors, the home of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign headquarters. Virginia did not go for either Clinton or Carter, both Southern Dems. In fact, it hasn't voted for any Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 and has long been the most reliably Republican state in the South.

But drive around Virginia, like I did early last month, and you realize pretty quickly that those same qualities that distinguish the Old Dominion from the rest of the South also help explain the surprising buoyancy of Kerry's candidacy. Put simply, Virginia is the Massachusetts of the South. Both states pride themselves on the lead roles they played in the nation's founding. Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and Monticello are as revered locally as are Plymouth Rock, Old North Church, and Bunker Hill. Both states have long maritime traditions and booming high-tech suburbs. Both have cultures that admire good government, revere brave public service, trust leading families to run things, and generally eschew ideological zealotry and radicalism.

All these attributes can be seen in the kind of individuals who win statewide office in both places. Virginia's senior U.S. senator, John Warner, is a GOP version of Kerry: well-born, courtly, hardworking, a party man but with an independent streak, and a decorated Navy veteran. Warner refused to endorse Oliver North, the Republican candidate for the state's other Senate seat in 1994 because North was too radically conservative. And Virginia's current governor Mark Warner, is a Democratic version of Massachusetts' GOP governor Mitt Romney: competent, ideologically moderate, and a successful business entrepreneur. This centrist Chamber of Commerce sensibility, which helped make Virginia reliably Republican long before the less genteel parts of the South, is what's now helping shift the state towards Kerry's column this fall.

Giraffes & Presbyterians

If there is a center of the establishment in this establishmentarian commonwealth, it very well may be the Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Richmond, the state capitol. On a recent furnace-hot Sunday morning, the church looked like I imagine it must have during the 1950s: pinched, wealthy white faces in seersucker and bright, flowered dresses, an earnest, well-meaning sermon about the Rich Fool, the little blond kids scampering around, frequently censored. The whole thing looked like a Ralph Lauren catalogue.

After services in the church's dainty library, I met Hugh Gouldthorpe, an energetic, red-faced man in his 50s with a fringe of curly, mildly eccentric hair, a senior vice president at Owens & Minor, the nation's largest medical supply company. "Whatever the equivalent of a yellow-dog Democrat is, where you vote for the Republican Party just every time, that's what I am," he told me. He laughs a lot. Hugh has published a pair of management books, I've Always Looked up to Giraffes and How to Feed Giraffes, about how to develop talented managers "who rise above the crowd," and he is wearing an orange silk tie with giraffe patterns on it and a giraffe pin in his lapel. (You imagine the church's missionaries in Malawi, stopping off at the game preserve's gift-shop, catching sight of some giraffe tchotchkes and thinking, "Oh my, this would be perfect for Hugh!"). Hugh hasn't made up his mind yet about who to vote for in November, but, he says, this is the first time ever that he might go either way.

The problem, for this man who describes himself as an "all-around civic leader," is Kerry seems the more leaderly candidate.

"When Bush came in, the business community thought they could trust him, they thought it would be like Reagan, a real leader," Hugh said. "But this hasn't been that kind of leadership." Everywhere you go in Richmond, and elsewhere in Virginia, you hear hints of similar, parallel shifts. Don Owens, a tax attorney, is voting for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in his life because Bush has been "untrustworthy," and because of the deficits. Ken Powell, an investment banker, says his whole firm, ever-Republican, is wavering, a change he calls monumental: "They look at the deficits and health care and education problems and, for the first time, they're not sure the Republicans are going to hand over a better country to their children."

Democrats are pushing that case in Loudoun County, the seat of Virginia's 10th congressional district, on the expanding western edge of the Washington suburbs. It is a jaw-dropping wealthy territory, horse country that has long been overwhelmingly Republican, but the outward push of migrants from the city and the vast, high-tech campuses that have grown up around Dulles airport have changed the cultural composition: The district gave Gore 46 percent of the vote in 2000, more than those given a Democrat in recent memory. The slow erosion of GOP support in exurban neighborhoods is happening all over the country, including south of the Mason-Dixon line. But nowhere else in the South is this phenomenon more likely to have electoral consequences than in Virginia.

The wrong blue blood

This year, for the first time in four election cycles, the long-serving Republican incumbent, Frank Wolf, has a Democratic challenger, a Harvard-trained, 37-year-old former investment banker named James Socas. The candidate has a laid-back, boosterish, youth-soccer-coach demeanor and a snapshot-ready, three-children family; his wife is named Devereux. It's not that Socas looks as if he's stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting; rather, he's updated it for the 21st-century suburbs. He speaks with passion about religion and deficits, his eyebrows curving darkly downward whenever he mentions budget imbalances; had he run 15 years ago, he would have been a solid Main Street Republican. But that breed barely exists anymore, and Socas is trying to woo people like him--Christian-inflected, deficit-hawk businessmen--over to the Democrats. His campaign headquarters are in the basement of his gorgeous, sprawling, must-be-$3 million home, and so in order to get to the phone bank, the volunteers who show up early on Saturday morning have got to step over a wheelbarrow-sized basket teeming with dozens of shoes belonging to Socas's kids.

When we met in his living room, Socas had just returned from the national Democratic convention where he spoke at 4:13 p.m. on Wednesday: not that big an audience, but "my kids got to watch me on C-Span, which was nice." The case he made in Boston, and is repeating on the trail, Socas says, is a fairly simple one: "I don't have to ask voters to abandon the Republicans, I just have to explain how the Republicans have abandoned them, how they've decided to run to the right and their squandering the legacy we leave for our children."

The same poor-stewardship case plays remarkably well in less tony parts of the state, such as the gritty strip-malled districts of Virginia Beach. This is Navy country, and the man organizing it is Michael Steven Myers, who grew up here as a barracks brat son of a Naval officer. Myers (who joined the Army) is the kind of red-state manly-man Vietnam vet who shows up in Country-and-Western songs; speaking with a stranger, he moves without warning from macho talk to an almost uncomfortable emotional intimacy, telling me vividly how two weeks ago in a park, he started weeping for his platoon sergeant who died in Vietnam. Once, half a generation ago, Myers ran for Congress as a libertarian-tinged independent in Idaho, black-helicopter country, he got precisely 18 votes. After his wife died two years ago, he moved back to his home state of Virginia and, after his first-ever registration as a Democrat, has now, improbably, immersed himself in the Kerry campaign. Late nights, he corners drunk old vets at fried-chicken joints and harangues them about what Bush has done to their benefits. He said he's converted a few: "There's a lot of guys who have told me, Mike, there's no way I'm going for your guy, but I can't vote for Bush." Then Myers is off on a long spiel about a play he's written about the horrors of combat. You quickly learn to tolerate these spells, wait for him to wind his way back to the wavering Republican voters. Eventually he does. "It's leadership," he told me. "That's the reason everyone here voted for Bush in 2000. Even the Republicans, they tell me they know they ain't getting it now."

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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