Four stories to follow in Virginia

What the Commonwealth’s political reporters should focus on now

VIRGINIA — Election Day has come and gone, leaving many vital story threads for Virginia’s political reporters to continue to pursue. Here are four to follow in the weeks and months ahead:

1. Purple Virginia

The changing demographics of the country’s electorate—and the growing numbers of minority, single women and youth voters that helped push the president to victory again last week—have been reported and commented upon at length in the national press. How are demographic changes playing out in Virginia, a historically red state that broke Obama’s way in 2008 and again this year, but that was dominated by Republicans in 2010 and in which Republicans last week maintained their 8 to 3 advantage in the Commonwealth’s Congressional delegation? These questions should remain on the radar of Virginia’s political press corps.

On Sunday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch weighed in with an interesting analysis of Virginia’s Chesterfield County which, the paper reported, “remains a Republican county, albeit of a lighter shade of red” thanks in part to demographic changes (Note: This and other Times-Dispatch links in this post are presently not working, which, the paper tells me, is temporary and due to an ongoing website makeover). Per the story:

Republican Mitt Romney on Tuesday won central Virginia’s most populous locality by 13,000 votes over President Barack Obama in the race for the White House, but he didn’t accumulate the margins of previous Republican presidential candidates.

Though no Democrat has won Chesterfield at the presidential level since President Harry S. Truman in 1948, it is no longer as Republican-leaning as it was in the last decade, when President George W. Bush twice won the county by more than 30,000 votes.

Many point to Chesterfield’s changing demographics as one of the main reasons for the swing toward the left, at least when it comes to national politics.

With a population of about 320,000, the county is 65 percent white, 22 percent African-American, more than 7 percent Hispanic and about 3 percent Asian, according to U.S. census data. But in 2000, the county was 76 percent white, 18 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic and just more than 2 percent Asian.

In Southwest Virginia, the Blue Ridge Caucus political blog at The Roanoke Times has been a consistent bright spot in election coverage, ably condensing compelling political insight—as exemplified by a November 9th post on “what we learned from election 2012.” The post touched on population shifts and voting patterns contributing to the state’s purple status (Democrats have been losing ground in Southwest Virginia, coal country, but continue to focus on Northern Virginia, where the population is growing much faster) and linked to a Wall Street Journal chart on demographic shifts for Democratic presidential candidates.

Changing demographics are indeed a factor in how Virginia votes, but, down-ballot, redistricting obviously also has a hand. Here’s the opening of a strong November 7th Times-Dispatch report on the topic:

When Virginia’s congressional redistricting plan passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly this year, opponents criticized it as an “incumbent protection plan.”

On Election Day, it worked to protection.

Virginia Republicans maintained their five-seat majority in the state’s U.S. House delegation with solid victories across the state in the eight congressional seats they currently occupy.

Democratic incumbents also maintained their three seats — beneficiaries, like their GOP counterparts, of recalibrated district boundaries designed to preserve the 8-3 GOP imbalance of power.

“The irony is we have a Virginia that is more competitive than it’s been in its history … and yet we have a congressional delegation that is five seats in Republicans’ favor,” said Quentin Kidd, professor of political science and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

“It’s a glaring indication of how partisan redistricting can distort what a state really looks

Hopefully, there will be more reporting to come following up on that thought. (Congressional races were generally underreported on here as the presidential race and the expensive Tim Kaine-George Allen Senate race sucked up most of the ink and airtime. More on this below.)

2. Voting irregularities

By far the most common voting problem in Virginia on Election Day was long lines at polling places. In Hampton Roads, where some of the longest lines occurred, The Virginian-Pilot on Friday had an informative story on state Sen. Janet Howell’s six-year campaign to relax restrictions on early voting in Virginia, and how the Democrat has met with no success in the GOP-dominated General Assembly. Timely and thorough reporting on an issue to watch.

Apart from the lines, complaints of actual problems with the vote were rare in Virginia. There was a Huffington Post report of some Korean American seniors who “felt bullied” at an Annandale polling site in suburban Washington, D.C. that’s worth a follow-up by local media.

Another incident that I wrote about for CJR— involving a Pennsylvania man working for a GOP voter registration effort who was seen throwing registration forms into a dumpster— is in need of some follow-through, too. On November 2, The Washington Post reported that the state’s investigation was expanding to look at the firm that had hired the worker, a group led by “longtime GOP operative” Nathan Sproul.

The Daily News-Record of Harrisonburg reported on the incident on Election Day in a story that is unfortunately archived behind a paywall. The paper nodded to the Post story and noted that a preliminary hearing for the worker will be held Dec. 3. The only bit of added value the News-Record provided was talking with the county sheriff, who said there’s nothing to it, and that he believes it was simply an isolated incident:

Although there is a state investigation under way, Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said his office does not believe widespread fraud took place. Police haven’t released a motive, but a source said Small likely missed the registration deadline to turn in the forms, panicked and tossed them in the trash bin. Third-party groups that register voters must file the forms to the registrar’s office within 15 days.

It’s good to get the local sheriff’s view in, but Harrisonburg would better serve its readers to do some legwork and check out what’s going on with the expanded probe. Other Commonwealth political reporters would be more than welcome to join in, too.

3. Follow the money

Needed: comprehensive reporting on the staggering sums spent this cycle in Virginia—“outside” and candidate spending alike—and its influence on the campaign. To date I’ve seen only passing mention of the role of money in the Kaine-Allen Senate race. For example, toward the end of its day-after story on Kaine v. Allen, the Virginian-Pilot mentions that the race was “one of the most expensive in the nation.”

I’m hoping for an expansive look in each market of who spent how much and for whom. Also, where did the money go? How does that money circulate around the market? What stays in-state? It’s the stuff of major projects, and hopefully some of it is in the works.

It would also be interesting to read an account of the state’s US House races and what produced this result (all incumbents won re-election; 8 of 11 seats remained Republican). The Times-Dispatch took on the redistricting angle, as I noted above, but what role did money play? Other factors?

4. “Fiscal cliff”

For a state dependent on defense industry jobs, the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to kick in on January 1st—the latter with the potential to cost many thousands of defense industry jobs, if it actually goes into effect—looms especially large here.

Greg Marx did a great job explaining the “fiscal whatchamacallit” (and the “problem with the [“fiscal cliff”] metaphor that the media and political elites have seized onto”) in a CJR post on Friday, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch had an informative piece on Sunday on how Virginia politicians could play a key role in its resolution.

Virginians will need their press corps to stay on this story—with, as Marx wrote , “clear-eyed reporting”—as the process plays out.

The next election cycle may not officially begin, at least by the Federal Election Commission’s count, until January. But there’s plenty of work for political reporters to do between now and then—and thereafter.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.