updated 7/15/2008 7:04:13 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:04:13

Traditions endure in Virginia. Through 400 years of history, Virginians have honored, and sometimes been fixated by, traditions going back to the Revolution and before. For the last half-century, Virginia has been growing lustily, in the first years after World War II thanks mainly to government, in recent years thanks more to a vibrant private sector, but the first state in the nation to elect a black governor still hews to a course close to its roots. The first Virginia was a commonwealth ruled by a landed gentry that was, in the words of historian David Hackett Fischer, “elitist and libertarian.” From the tobacco-growing counties emerged in the 1770s a group of leaders—George Washington, George Mason, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, James Madison—who in learning, wisdom and strength of character, equal any such group from any similarly sized polity since Periclean Athens or republican Rome. They were slaveholders who insisted on liberty, armed men living on the marches of civilization who insisted on the rule of law, believers in racial inequality who set forth principles of equality that would in time form the basis of a non-racist society. The Virginia they led into the American Revolution was not only the most populous and the richest of the 13 colonies, it also was the indispensable creator of the Republic and the Constitution that has held together the world’s greatest democracy.

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After the Revolutionary War, gentry control continued even as Virginia was eclipsed in population and wealth by Pennsylvania and New York and, its tobacco fields all but exhausted, became a breeding ground for slaves. But Virginia had two more great heroes, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, both of whom reluctantly and brilliantly fought for their state rather than the larger nation. Virginia’s leadership class was impoverished and embittered by the Civil War, so much of which was fought on Virginia soil. Industrialization was haphazard: Railroads were constructed to ship cotton up from the South and coal east to the seaports; textile mills were built in Southside towns and tobacco factories in Richmond; the giant Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company was built by railroad magnate Collis Huntington. Politically, Virginia was ruled by a local gentry who worshipped their Revolutionary past and mourned their Lost Cause. They were pessimists, looking not for economic growth but for stability, bent on maintaining Virginia’s segregation and content with its second-class economy. County courthouse organizations became the political machine of Harry Byrd, who ran Virginia politics from 1925, when he was elected governor, until 1965, when he retired from the Senate. In national politics, this machine lost battles more often than Lee lost on the battlefield, and less gallantly. For years the machine succeeded in keeping most vestiges of the welfare state and racial equality out of Virginia, to the point of closing public schools in the 1950s rather than obeying federal court desegregation orders.

This “massive resistance” collapsed in the late 1950s; Virginia’s demographics were changing and its politics went through a quarter-century of flux. The government-employee filled Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. and the industrial Tidewater region around Norfolk and Newport News, plus the enfranchisement of blacks, provided a political base for liberal Democrats. But they were never quite a majority. In the 1970s, conservatives who left the Democratic Party and ran as independents or Republicans held them at bay. In the 1980s, three moderate Democrats were elected governor—Charles Robb in 1981, Gerald Baliles in 1985, Douglas Wilder in 1989—because they did not represent an attempt to impose a labor-liberal agenda on an unwilling Virginia, and because they argued they could use government effectively to improve education and build Virginia’s economy. Wilder’s election was a national breakthrough, a successful attempt by a black politician to campaign and govern on equal terms. His fiscal conservatism, which resulted in sharp spending cuts in the early 1990s, like his elegant manners and thick Richmond accent, echoes Virginia’s elitist and libertarian tradition; his insistence on the rule of law helped him win election as Richmond’s mayor in 2004.

In the 1990s, Virginia developed ideological politics along party lines, and Republicans made historic strides by winning majorities with traditional party platforms. George Allen was elected governor by a wide margin in 1993 as a Republican who believed in lower taxes, traditional cultural values, longer prison terms, and teaching basic skills—he combined confrontational issue positions with a sunny temperament. In the 1997 contest for governor (Virginia is the last state which bars its governors from running for reelection, another tradition that endures), Republican James Gilmore made his centerpiece issue the phasing out of the property tax on automobiles, and won a 56%-43% victory over Democrat Don Beyer. Republicans for the first time swept the top three statewide offices. In 1999 Gilmore led Republicans to legislative majorities in both chambers for the first time ever. George W. Bush carried the state, to no one’s surprise, by a solid 52%-44% margin in 2000.

In the years since Democrats have become more competitive and successful; Republicans haven’t won a contested race for senator or governor since 2000 (Republican Senator John Warner had no Democratic opponent in 2002). The first Democratic winner was cell phone millionaire Mark Warner, who won in 2001 primarily due to an intensive 18-month campaign in rural Virginia—paying attention to the parts of the state not blessed by 1990s growth. Warner carried Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area only narrowly. But he also carried the rest of the state, which casts about half the vote, where Bush had won 56%-41% the year before. Warner’s big success was persuading the legislature to raise taxes by a record amount in 2004; the Republican state Senate wanted to raise them even more, but a lot of arms had to be twisted to get the needed votes in the Republican House of Delegates. The key impetus for raising taxes was the demand for more roads and mass transit in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads; as it turned out, revenues poured in and produced a big surplus. Warner left office with high ratings and a plan to run for president in 2008, as a moderate in touch with country music and NASCAR races; it helped him that Democratic Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine was elected to succeed him in 2005.

Kaine’s victory, and that of Democrat Jim Webb against Republican Senator George Allen in 2006, resulted from big Democratic margins in Northern Virginia. This was presaged in 2004, when John Kerry’s campaign for a time was seriously contesting Virginia. Bush ended up winning again, 54%-45%, but contrary to the national pattern he ran worse in Northern Virginia than he had in 2000. Then Bush carried the area 49%-47%; in 2004 it went for John Kerry, 51%-48%. With a growing immigrant population in Fairfax County and a burgeoning number of singles in Arlington and Alexandria, Bush’s cultural conservatism and country style were repelling Northern Virginia voters. In 2005, Kaine’s opponent, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, with a deep Southwest Virginia accent and very conservative stands, was an even harder sell; Kaine ran only 1% ahead of Warner’s showing in Hampton Roads and failed to carry the half of the state outside the two big metro areas as Warner had. But he carried Northern Virginia 58%-40%, even carrying fast-growing exurban Loudoun and Prince William Counties. Webb duplicated that feat in 2006. Allen won 48% of the vote in Hampton Roads, the same as when he beat incumbent Senator Charles Robb in 2000, and in the area outside the two big metro areas he won 55%, just 1% less than six years before. But he was clobbered in Northern Virginia; he lost the area to Robb 51%-49% in 2000, but lost it 57%-42% to Webb in 2006.

Virginia, once the “mother of presidents” (eight of them were born in the state, more than any other) expected to have two 2008 presidential candidates, but both candidacies collapsed within a month. In October 2006, Mark Warner announced he was not running, and Allen’s defeat in November, which gave Democrats a majority in the Senate, took him out of the race. A third Virginia candidate, former Governor Jim Gilmore, entered the race for the Republican nomination in January 2007 but exited in July.

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