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Want to know how the Democrats will do in 2002--and whether President Bush will win re-election in 2004? For a reliable prediction, watch Virginia in the fall. The state's off-year elections have for the last three decades foreshadowed the political trends that shape American politics. This November's gubernatorial election will be a test of how solid the Republican South really is, and could provide a preview of the 2004 presidential contest. The race pits New Democrat Mark Warner against Republican Attorney General Mark Earley, a "compassionate conservative." One of the main issues will be whether Virginians have really benefited from the massive tax cut adopted by the last Republican administration. And the principal battleground for voter support will be the large swath of suburbia that stretches from northern Virginia down the coast to Norfolk and comprises about 60 percent of the electorate.

Virginia was once the capital of the Confederacy, and for almost 100 years its mainly whites-only electorate was dominated by very conservative Bourbon Democrats, epitomized by the late Senator Harry Byrd, Jr., and his father. But since the 1960s, influenced by the Voting Rights Act and by the growth of the suburbs around Washington, D.C., Virginia has increasingly become a microcosm of the American electorate. Its trends haven't just mirrored but have portended those in the country as a whole. In the 1970s, Virginia veered sharply Republican in a prelude to the Reagan landslide, and the GOP controlled the governor's office throughout the decade. (In Virginia, governors can serve only a single term of four years, so each election poses a new political test.) In 1976, Virginia was the only southern state to back Gerald Ford against Jimmy Carter. In 1978, Republican John Warner was elected to the Senate. And in November 1980, Republicans won nine of 10 House seats.

Republicans were aided in those years by Democratic defectors--white segregationists from southern Virginia who had backed the old Byrd machine along with coastal Tidewater Democrats who depended on military spending and were put off by the national party's opposition to their livelihood. But Republican ranks were also swelled by northern Virginia's suburbanites--many of them salaried professionals--who blamed the Democrats for stagflation, high taxes, and growing welfare expenditures. Reagan carried these voters by two to one in 1980. Much of the story of Virginia politics has revolved around the shifting allegiances of this growing group of voters.

In the 1980s, Virginia anticipated Clinton's 1992 victory by moving dramatically back toward the Democratic Party. The key individuals were former marine officer Charles Robb (who had married President Lyndon Johnson's daughter Lynda Bird Johnson) and Douglas Wilder, an African-American legislator from Richmond. In his successful campaign for governor in 1981 and for the Senate in 1988, Robb, with Wilder's support, created the model of the "New Democrat." His conservative demeanor (later belied by a sex scandal) and his military background insulated him against identification with counterculture and antiwar Democrats. Robb's fiscal conservatism and his focus on practical reform played well in the suburbs. And his support for civil rights and abortion rights won him backing among minorities and middle-class women. Wilder, who was elected lieutenant governor in 1985 and governor in 1989, served as an important ally. He was a militant civil rights supporter who could mobilize Virginia's blacks, but he was not a ready target for white conservatives because he was as conservative as Robb on fiscal and defense issues and was openly antagonistic toward Jesse Jackson's presidential aspirations.

The Democrats also benefited from divisions within the Republican Party created by the rise of the religious right. While Robb and Gerald Baliles, his Democratic successor as governor, appeared to be focused on the problems of education and suburban sprawl, the Republicans were battling over abortion and "creationism" (in 1985 their gubernatorial candidate favored the compulsory teaching of creationism in public schools). Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Freedom Council (later to become the Christian Coalition) may have inspired fear nationally, but they were an albatross for Virginia Republicans trying to attract suburban votes. In 1989, Wilder ran commercials that linked his opponent to the religious right and won 56 percent of the vote in northern Virginia. By November 1990, all of Virginia's top state officials were Democrats, and its congressional delegation consisted of six Democrats and four Republicans.

But after Bill Clinton's election in 1992, Virginia began to shift back into the Republican column, presaging the Republican takeover of Congress in November 1994 and George W. Bush's election in 2000. Republican George Allen, who won the governor's race in 1993, and Governor James Gilmore, his Republican successor, became models for the "compassionate conservative" of the 1990s. They focused on education, crime, and welfare reform and distanced themselves from the religious right. (In 1997, Gilmore declared that he opposed abortion only after the first trimester.) And after seeing its Senate candidate Oliver North repudiated in 1994, the increasingly marginal religious right in Virginia backed Gilmore in 1997 and Allen in his 2000 Senate bid while keeping a low profile. Meanwhile, Democrats suffered from Clinton's initial turn leftward and from the economic slowdown that occurred during Wilder's stewardship.

In 1997, Gilmore introduced a tax-cut plan that was a harbinger of Bush's favorite weapon in the 2000 presidential campaign. Trailing his popular opponent from northern Virginia, Gilmore came up with a proposal to eliminate the state's unpopular car tax. Levied annually on 3 percent of each vehicle's value, the car tax was the second-largest source of city and county revenue. It was also wildly unpopular, especially among two-car suburban families. Gilmore estimated that the elimination of the car tax, which was to be phased out over five years, would eventually cost the Virginia treasury $600 million a year, but he promised that the state could reimburse the counties from the increased revenues it would receive from rapid economic growth. Gilmore's tax cut won him the suburban vote and the election. And on the heels of Gilmore's success, Republicans in 1999 won control of both of the state's legislative chambers. Virginia had once again become Republican.

But in November 2001, Virginia could begin to shift back into the Democratic column--and take the country with it. Gilmore's tax cut has turned into a fiscal disaster. The state's budget for fiscal year 2002 assumes almost 7 percent growth in revenue to pay for spending, but as the state economy has slowed, revenues have increased only 1 percent. This spring, the Republican legislature had to choose between delaying the car-tax cut (which is now projected to cost $1.2 billion a year) and scaling back social spending. While Virginia's house of representatives passed the fourth year of the tax cut, the senate balked. Senate Republicans even formed an organization, Virginians for Fiscal Responsibility, to advocate delaying the tax cut. With the two bodies unable to agree, Gilmore had to trim the state budget and was forced to cut funding for school construction and other popular programs. Democrats won't be able to run against the original proposal to eliminate the unpopular tax, but they will be able to take advantage of the public's unhappiness with the way Republicans have implemented it.

Demographic changes also may benefit Democrats in this year's election and during the rest of the decade. Republican commentators have been crowing about population increases in states that have voted Republican--growth they think will ensure a Republican tilt in the reapportioned electoral college. But Virginia is a case study that shows why this may not be so. The state's population grew 14.4 percent in the 1990s--yet more than half of that increase involved minorities, who are more likely to support Democrats than Republicans. For instance, Virginia's Hispanic population grew by 106 percent over the past decade, while its white population increased by just 5.6 percent. The northern Virginia suburbs enjoyed the largest population growth--86 percent of Fairfax County's growth stemmed from an influx of Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans. The area's socially liberal, fiscally conservative professionals--supplemented by more traditional working-class Democrats--now account for about 30 percent of the state's electorate. And while they backed Jim Gilmore in 1997, they supported Al Gore and Chuck Robb in 2000. These voters could easily back a Democrat like Mark Warner this November.

Warner's liberal pedigree--he ran Wilder's campaign in 1989 and was an aide to Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd--ensures support for him among Virginia's white liberals as well as the black population. An early investor in cellular phone technology who struck it rich in the 1980s, Warner is running as a centrist, socially liberal businessman who wants to improve Virginia's educational system and infrastructure in order to bring "new economy" growth to all parts of the state. He has a wide following in northern Virginia among Republicans as well as Democrats. And he also enjoys surprising support among the populist Democrats in the southwestern part of the state, who backed him by a margin of five to four when he ran for Senate against John Warner in 1996. His popularity there may partly be explained by his emphasis on economic development in rural Virginia.

The 46-year-old Warner is a dogged campaigner who has promised to spend whatever is necessary of his $200-million fortune to win. (In 1996 he spent $10 million running against John Warner.) He is not conceding any part of the state to the Republicans, including rural Southside, Virginia, once a center of resistance to racial integration of its public schools. To attract support in Southside, Warner has sponsored a NASCAR team and run commercials proclaiming--to the tune of the Dillards' "Dooley"--that "Mark Warner's a good ol' boy from up in Novaville, he understands our people, the folks up in the hills." It's hokey, but it is also necessary if Warner wants these voters not to reject him as a cultural outsider before listening to his economic message. Warner's manner also wins him friends. Like Indiana's Evan Bayh, the Indianapolis-born Warner has a kind of bland, gee-whiz affability.

Warner's opponent, Mark Earley, also 46, is a capable campaigner, but he is identified with the state's religious right and will have to spend a lot of time justifying his party's handling of the car-tax cut and the budget. As one Earley supporter acknowledged to me at the state GOP convention in June, "the Republicans have no message because of the fighting over the budget." Earley is also at a geographical disadvantage against Warner: While Warner is from northern Virginia, Earley is from the Tidewater region. If Warner doesn't stumble in the campaign, he should be able to create a winning coalition against Earley.

A Warner victory would have enormous repercussions. It would add further evidence of a Democratic revival in what was recently thought to be a solidly Republican South. With Warner's win, Democrats would control a majority of governorships in the old Confederacy. If successful, his election campaign would also demonstrate the potential Democrats have to build a new, nationwide majority coalition over the next decade--a revitalized party uniting minority voters, unreconstructed New Deal Democrats, and the new-economy suburbanites who populate places like northern Virginia, North Carolina's Research Triangle, and California's Silicon Valley. And a Warner victory would also show that an irresponsibly conceived tax cut, no matter how popular in the beginning, is not a sure ticket to success for Republicans--whether in retaining Virginia's governor's mansion or in keeping control of the White House.

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