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For decades, quiet and rural Caroline County, Virginia, could be counted on to vote for Democrats in presidential elections, while more conservative and populous neighbors were turning out in droves for Republicans.
In 1988, Caroline gave Mike Dukakis a win over George Herbert Walker Bush, the only county in the region to do so. In 1992, Bill Clinton got 48.6 percent of the county’s votes, with 38 percent for Bush and 12.5 percent for Ross Perot. In 1996, Clinton trounced Bob Dole, 53.5 percent to 38.6 percent, with Perot grabbing 7 percent. Al Gore took 51.7 percent of the county’s vote in 2000, over 46.4 percent for George W. Bush.
Only in 2004 did the Republicans eke out a victory—by 121 votes, with G.W. Bush taking 50.2 percent of the vote to John Kerry’s 49 percent. Then in 2008, Caroline’s voters came back and gave the Democrat, Barack Obama, a convincing 55.45 percent, to John McCain’s 43.5 percent. Obama triumphed again in 2012, besting Mitt Romney, 53.3 percent to 45 percent.
But then came 2016, with a political neophyte, Donald Trump, taking a narrow 50.2 percent to 45.1 percent victory over his vastly more experienced Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who carried Virginia. Caroline County was one of only five “Pivot Counties” in the state—localities that voted twice for Obama and then reversed course for Trump.
Was this a fluke? Or a sign of shifting political loyalties?
PREVIOUSLY: The Mystery of Caroline County, Virginia
We won’t know for quite a while. And before we get to that rather large question—in Caroline County and nationwide—we have to consider who the Democrats will pick to try to answer it. To begin the inquiry, I attended a February 8 meeting of the Caroline County Democratic Committee.
It was not an easy meeting to find. The Democrats’ website and Facebook page still advertised the January meeting. I stumbled across mention of the February meeting in a video posted on the One Caroline Virginia Facebook page, maintained by Tony Ares, who tried unsuccessfully to start up a local newspaper after the ninety-nine-year-old Caroline Progress ceased printing in 2018 and left a void in the civic conversation. In a video on his Facebook page, Ares noted there would be free coffee and donuts at the event.
As it turned out, there were more donuts than people. Most who did attend were older Democrats who knew about the meeting via the grapevine. Committee members briefly discussed their frustration over difficulty in communicating with the electorate, especially with recent newcomers to the county, of which there are a number. In 1988, 6,292 Caroline county residents voted for president. In 2016, 14,863 did so, out of 18,229 eligible voters. By March 2020, the number of eligible voters in the county has swelled to 20,508. How many of them will turn out in November, and how many will be Democrats, is anyone’s guess.
THE CHAIRMAN of the County Democratic Committee, Floyd Thomas, was cautious on that question. An erudite sixty-four-year-old black man who grew up in White Plains, NY, Thomas spent every summer of his youth on his uncle’s farm near Bowling Green here in Caroline County. He graduated from Howard University with a degree in architecture and met his wife Linda, originally from Baltimore, while they were students there. They moved here in 1987 and four years later he was elected to represent the Mattaponi District on the Board of Supervisors. Linda Thomas has twice served as president of the Virginia NAACP.
As local party chairman, Thomas has thus far remained above the fray, not picking a favorite among the crowded field campaigning in advance of Virginia’s primary vote on Super Tuesday, March 3. He says that there are as many opinions in Caroline as there are candidates. The one unifying force, he says is to get a Democrat in the White House.
I asked Thomas if, given recent population increases, Democrats are now outnumbered by Republicans in Caroline County? He said he does not see “a total shifting in philosophy.” There are more independents now than before, he added. “Virginians are uniquely independent.” And Independents can vote Democratic. He pointed to local victories for Democrats in 2017, 2018, and 2019 as evidence.
UP TO A WEEK before March 3, the primary did not seem to create much of a stir in Central Virginia. Several candidates opened campaign offices in Richmond and Northern Virginia in early February and a relative handful of neighborhood canvassing “events” were listed in counties adjacent to Caroline. TV ads for the two billionaires then in the race, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, began to appear. But yard signs and bumper stickers were virtually nonexistent until just days before the primary.
An exception to this was in the Town of Ashland, eight miles south of Caroline County. There a former mayor, Jim Foley, was one of the first in the area to jump on the Pete Buttigieg bandwagon. “It was before the first debate and he did a FOX News Town Hall,” Foley said. “I sought out more of his public speaking. Everything I heard resonated with me. It was like he was the adult in the room.”
Foley holds a CPA and Masters in Finance, and he is Director of Pricing for a major Richmond law firm. He and his wife Lorie have lived in Ashland for twenty-four years. “I have family members who voted for Trump and I think Buttigieg could win them over the most easily,” Foley said. Bernie Sanders, he argues, “won the left wing but I worry that he would not be able to beat Trump.”
“Around the holidays I was kind of obnoxious and wore “Pete” buttons to everything I went to,” Foley added. “People said, ‘He’s too young… we like him, but, blah, blah, blah.’” This criticism did not deter Foley, who stocked up on bumper stickers and yard signs and offered them to friends and neighbors. “Pete is really focused on a post-Trump world. He is a true uniting candidate who can pull us together as a nation.”
Except he didn’t.
I contacted Foley after Buttigieg dropped out and he admitted he was “bummed out.”
But Foley said he’d switch to Biden, and explained his thinking: “I worry about his gaffes and fading mental facilities. But he really is a safe choice and known commodity. He will surround himself with professionals.” And “anyone he picks for VP will be an improvement over Trump.”
As for Senator Sanders: His “boldest plans will not get through congress even if the D’s control the senate. But a more practical and appealing version of those plans may emerge will be very good for the USA.”
As for Bloomberg, Foley said, just a day before Super Tuesday, “He joined because of the disjointed D field, and now that support is coalescing around Biden, Mike’s reason for being is gone.”
And now, so is Mike, who dropped out on March 4.
DR. STEPHEN FARNSWORTH was not dismayed by the relative quiet in Central Virginia prior to Super Tuesday. He is a professor of political science and international affairs and founder of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, one of two colleges within a thirty-minute commute from Caroline County. He has been observing politics in Virginia for more than two decades.
“I think the Virginia outcome is very uncertain,” he said, a few days before Super Tuesday. “Candidates are looking at an electorate that is of two schools of mind. One is that they agree with their views. Another perspective is, ‘which candidate has the best chance of beating President Trump.’
“It is more calculated this year,” Farnsworth said. “It is wait and see.” He noted too that Virginia was seeing high levels of voter interest and participation, including high absentee voting and high interest on college campuses.
CHAPTER FOUR: Fighting the Wall Along the Rio grande
Five days before Super Tuesday, Farnsworth served as moderator of a forum on policy, and more than seventy voters—many of them still undecided at the time—gathered on a cold, windy night in the basement of the Fredericksburg Public Library to hear the views of four of the remaining democratic primary candidates at the time—on health care, climate change, and education. Well-prepared surrogates spoke on behalf of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.
A former Bowling Green town councilman, Matt Rowe, Senior Geographic Information Systems Analyst for rapidly growing Stafford County, represented Buttigieg. Rowe said he got on the former Indiana mayor’s bandwagon about eight months ago because of Buttigieg’s “realistic” approach to solving many of the problems that face the country. Rowe heard Buttigieg speak at the 2019 Blue Commonwealth Gala, an annual fundraiser, and was hooked. “He is an amazing orator and has a great read for where we are as a country.”
Other speakers at the Fredericksburg forum were equally well informed and passionate about their candidates. Dr. Jay Brock, a past president of the Fredericksburg Area Medical Society, graduated from McGill University in Montreal and began his medical practice in Canada under a single payer health system. He spoke on behalf of Senator Sanders, likening the American healthcare system to the casinos of Las Vegas. “Like gambling, the system is set up so the house always wins and the house is the healthcare companies. It’s wasteful. Who would even want to keep that system?” Brock asked. Moderate plans just perpetuate the waste, he said. “Only Bernie’s plan eliminates the health care industry and is truly affordable.”
Senator Warren was represented by Johanna Guzman, a former Fulbright Public Policy Fellow and visiting researcher at Oxford University, who has degrees in Biophysics and Microbiology. “Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are used to protect the healthcare system. Why would anyone want to perpetuate a system that doesn’t put us first?” she asked the audience. At the present time, “Healthcare isn’t considered a right, it is considered a business. Elizabeth Warren has a plan to change that. She has a plan!”
Vice President Biden was represented by Henry Thomassen, a resident of nearby Stafford County and a retired Exxon-Mobil executive, who called himself “a proud Democrat for over twenty-five years with a strong record of community activism.” Thomassen said that Biden’s plan for healthcare, like all of the contenders, “will increase taxes. But not as much. It is more modest.”
Many Virginia Democrats had to revise their thinking on election eve, following announcements that Steyer, Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar were all abandoning their campaigns. I asked Rowe where that left him, and his answer was, perhaps, telling.
“With Pete dropping out, I have immediately switched to Joe Biden. I think that’s what Pete wanted us to do,” said Rowe, who added that he would be switching gears and preparing for the Democratic Convention for the 1st Congressional District of Virginia.
WHEN SUPER TUESDAY finally arrived, voting lifted the fog.
Caroline County gave Joe Biden a resounding victory, and 64 percent of the votes. Bernie Sanders trailed with 23.6 percent, followed by Mike Bloomberg at 8.17 percent and Elizabeth Warren 5.62 percent. Biden’s margin in Caroline was much larger than statewide, where he was victorious nonetheless with 53.3 percent of the vote.
Perhaps more significant than the percentages was the voter turnout on a windy, overcast primary election day. There were 3,952 Caroline County residents voting this year compared to 2,561 in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary. Direct comparisons are problematic because there was no Republican primary this year; Republicans and Independents were eligible to vote in the Democratic Primary, and the number of registered voters is higher this year.
Nonetheless, this was encouraging news for the Caroline County Democratic Chairman, Floyd Thomas. “That’s great,” he said. “It will take a while to see how many of those were first time voters and how many didn’t vote in 2016,” he added.
Matt Rowe, the Democratic Chairman for the 1st Congressional District, was also cheered. Having backed Buttigieg until he dropped out, Rowe spent the final hours of the campaign trying to steer Buttigieg and Klobuchar supporters to Biden. “It certainly helped when Pete endorsed Joe. That sealed it,” he said, after the polls closed.
How all of this affects the Virginia Congressional primary in June, and then the big one, the Presidential Election in November, remains to be seen.
Next Week, Chapter 6: Covering elections in Macon when there’s almost no one left to cover them
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.