Virginia: Dodging ‘racial demagoguery,’ and the redistricting fight to come

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

Last November, Democrats swept Virginia’s statewide offices, electing a record number of women and people of color to the House of Delegates. The election put Virginia, often seen as a bellwether for the rest of the country, at the crest of a potent blue wave. Meanwhile the national press has focused much of its election coverage elsewhere: on political-up-and-comers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, and on a handful of must-watch races, particularly the contest for Claire McCaskill’s Missouri Senate seat. But Virginia makes up for its lack of big ticket coverage with quietly important issues under the radar of national press that will impact the political climate of both the state and the nation in 2019 and beyond.

In Virginia’s Senate race, Republican challenger Corey Stewart is running a failing campaign against incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine modeled on Trump’s presidential bid. The sleepy quality of Virginia’s midterm coverage is largely due to the predictability of this race, but the press and public are also putting lessons learned covering Trump, about being less reactionary in news production and consumption, in practice. In January, CJR’s Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope asked journalists covering Trump to “retake the agenda from this man who so hungers for attention.” But how to do that? One suggestion is to limit reporting on what Pope calls “white noise”: antagonistic tweets, obvious falsehoods, dog-whistles.

But that white noise, often racist in nature, is Stewart’s brand. His political persona is an incoherent package of outrage; it begins with the removal of Confederate monuments, the cornerstone of his political ascendency, and ends, much like the president’s, with whatever is trending, from NFL players protesting police brutality to immigration. This familiar strategy is forcing the national press to negotiate the line between reporting issues in the public interest, like Stewart’s white nationalist ties, and simply widening the audience for his sensational claims and ad hominem attacks, which, also like Trump, often come via social media.

So far, coverage of Stewart reflects a workable mix of ignoring the cheapest shots, reporting significant campaign events, and contextualizing Stewart’s political style and ascendency as a product of a hard-right fringe.

Even local Republicans seem to approve of media’s unofficial Corey Stewart diet. In a state where many are fatigued by Charlottesville’s transformation into a symbolic white nationalist battleground, Stewart has also received a cold shoulder from his own party. Down-ballot candidates are not campaigning with Stewart, and the sentiment appears to be mutual. In Virginia, Stewart’s unpopularity among his fellow Republicans and his reputation as a media albatross appear to go hand-in-hand.

Stewart is also prone to what New Yorker editor David Remnick called “racial demagoguery,” where racism becomes a “performance of moral priorities” requiring dissemination by the press or social media. Finding a balance with Trump will be a longer project. But, so far, coverage of Stewart reflects a workable mix of ignoring the cheapest shots, reporting significant campaign events, and contextualizing Stewart’s political style and ascendency as a product of a hard-right fringe.

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A redistricting battle will also shape Virginia’s political future. Voter suppression and gerrymandering in Virginia aren’t often major talking points for media pundits outside the state. Virginia isn’t a key swing state like Ohio or Pennsylvania; North Carolina and Texas have been the  recent textbook examples of racial gerrymandering put to procedural test and followed closely by the press. But Virginia will be one of the first states to stake the path to reform with a post-Kennedy Supreme Court in power, making the outcome of the state’s redistricting battle hugely important to redistricting advocates nationwide.

Despite the November backlash, Republicans won a controversial tiebreaker in January to maintain control of the House of Delegates. That victory—attributable to racial gerrymandering, advocates argue—suggests the inability of a blue wave to turn the proverbial tide without election reforms. In August, Virginia began the process of redrawing 11 state legislative districts after its Supreme Court concluded the current map artificially concentrated African American voters.

The good news is that Virginia’s midterms aren’t all about delayed gratification. Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock is vulnerable for the first time in years thanks to newcomer Jennifer Wexton, and Dave Brat, a Freedom Caucus star, is in trouble as well. These races will surface in national coverage. Here in Virginia, however, the real story is about subtle, critical transformations that could have a big payout in elections to come.

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Elizabeth Catte is a public historian and writer based in Staunton, Virginia. She is the author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia and co-editor of 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike.