Virginia’s Weird Politics

The Commonwealth is much more diverse than national election returns might indicate.

Virginia, where I was born and have, after a several decade absence, lived for the past nineteen years, is a particularly odd state politically. We have our elections for state offices on off-off years—odd-numbered years in which there are no regularly scheduled elections for federal office. We were a Red state, voting for every Republican Presidential candidate but one (Barry Goldwater) in the half-century-plus spanning Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush but have voted Democrat in the four races since; Biden beat Trump by more than 10 points.

We’re the only remaining state that prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms, so Democrat Ralph Northam was ineligible to run for re-election. As widely expected—but unusually—his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, rather easily won yesterday’s Democratic primary. He’ll likely win handily over the Republican, of whom I had never heard and whose name I don’t remember even after just having looked it up, who was chosen in an unprecedented-in-modern-times state convention a month earlier.

While Democrats now dominate statewide, with two of McAuliffe’s Democratic predecessors filling the state’s US Senate seats, mostly as a function of the massive population growth in the Northern Virginia (“NoVa”) suburbs and exurbs of DC where I live, much of the state is still quite Republican. Which means that the down-ballot races in yesterday’s primaries were really weird. Thus, the WaPo report (“Four Democratic incumbents, one Republican ousted in Virginia House primaries“) that inspired this post:

In a night full of upsets, five challengers ousted incumbent Virginia lawmakers in Tuesday’s primary election, including a Trump-allied lawyer who unseated seven-term Del. Charles D. Poindexter (R-Franklin) and a left-leaning newcomer who bested centrist Del. Stephen E. Heretick (D-Portsmouth).

Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-Fairfax) narrowly lost to Irene Shin, according to results from the Virginia Public Access Project, although the Associated Press said there were still votes to be counted. Shin declared victory, and Samirah conceded.

And Dels. Lee J. Carter (D-Manassas) and Mark H. Levine (D-Alexandria) both lost their runs for reelection while simultaneously pursuing unsuccessful bids for statewide office — an unusual dynamic created by a delay in Census Bureau population data that affected the timing of redistricting and the House primaries.

Considering that I live here and barely paid attention to the races I don’t expect that non-Virginia readers will care about the particular outcomes. But the sheer oddity of it all both fascinates me and serves as a reminder of the diversity within states that we think of as Red and Blue because of Presidential and Senatorial results.

In Fairfax, which is adjacent to me and where my girls go to school, we see the remarkable diversity of Northern Virginia. Samirah, the incumbent who lost, is a Chicago-born Afro-Arab son of Palestinian refugees who was briefly exiled in Jordan during the height of the global war on terror and graduated dental school at Boston University. He apparently “rankled party leaders with his rejection of the ‘Virginia way,’ the rules of decorum that have governed Virginia politics for generations.” He was narrowly defeated by a “daughter of Korean immigrants” who is “director of a nonprofit voter advocacy group” and who has “focused much of her campaign on health care access and affordable housing.”

Carter, is a self-described socialist who was running for governor (he came in 5th, with 2.8% of the votes) and lost both races. Ditto Levine, who was seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor (he came in 3rd with 11.7%). I don’t know much else about those races but find it amusing that they misgauged their popularity but that magnitude.

But, while some incumbents lost races because they were seen too extreme, others lost because they were seen as too moderate.

In the 79th district, Nadarius Clark, 26, framed himself as a progressive alternative to Heretick, 61, whom he attacked for accepting money from Dominion Energy and voting against bills to ban assault weapons, end qualified immunity for police and empower localities to make decisions about Confederate statues.


Poindexter lost by roughly 25 percentage points to Wren Williams, who counseled President Donald Trump’s campaign during the Wisconsin recount — a sign of Trump’s firm hold on the GOP in parts of the state where he, and his false claims of a stolen election, remain deeply popular.

Williams, former chairman of the Patrick County Republican Committee in Southwestern Virginia, emphasized his support of Trump’s challenges to the 2020 election and said Poindexter had not sufficiently backed the former president’s efforts.


In Virginia Beach’s 83rd district, the race was too close to call between Republican Chris Stolle and Trump-allied lawyer Tim Anderson, both of whom were far ahead of newcomer Philip M. Kazmierczak, according to preliminary results. Stolle, who held the seat before narrowly losing to Democrat Nancy D. Guy in 2019, is more aligned with the GOP’s traditional conservative wing. Anderson, meanwhile, has slung lawsuits at Democratic lawmakers and emphasized election security — which some voters found appealing.

But, again, not so much in NoVa:

Jennifer Adeli insisted the formerly red 34th district, in parts of Fairfax and Loudon counties, was trending to the left of Del. Kathleen J. Murphy — but Murphy easily came out on top, according to unofficial returns.

Overall, it just shows how messy the picture is below the surface. We’re a Democratic-leaning state on the strength of folks like me, educated professionals who came to NoVa to work. Fairfax County, where I live, alone has 1.15 million residents, roughly 13% of the state’s entire population. But huge swaths are deep Red and just as enthralled with Donald Trump as folks in my erstwhile home state of Alabama.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Long Time Listener says:

    Virginia’s quite interesting. I’ve been a resident since 2002, and have watched this shift closely. Every four years, do have a look at Washington Post’s breakdown of election results, not by result, but by number of votes cast: in the population centers (NoVa, Norfolk/VaBeach, Charlottesville/Richmond), there are millions of votes being cast, and they are pulsing blue. In the ‘red’ counties, there aren’t many counties casting more than 4,000 votes. Comparatively speaking, those parts of the Commonwealth aren’t very populated. Dems taking the statehouse, in the 2019 cycle, shone a light on this.

    I’ll sheepishly admit that my voting in yesterday’s primary was the first time that I’d voted in a primary since I’ve been here (I’ve not skipped a mid-term nor general). Americans are too lazy to vote every single year, but then they wonder how the kooks end up on the ballot and then in office….

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Long Time Listener: I must admit to being a pretty sporadic voter in the party primaries in the Virginia-only contests. I just don’t know the candidates and, frankly, McAuliffe was all but unopposed for governor.

  3. Kylopod says:

    I’m not sure I’m following your argument about why Virginia’s politics are “weird.” There’s nothing particularly unusual about a state which leans strongly toward one party having parts of it that lean strongly in the other direction. In literally every blue state in the country you find strongly red areas, and vice versa. The only thing notable is that it’s one of the most dramatic examples in the past generation of a state that was reliably red turning reliably blue, and the transformation happened much more recently than, say, Vermont. It’s the only state Hillary Clinton won which her husband never won.

  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    Your comment on the “Virginia Way” reminded me of my time in Virginia. I’ve never lived somewhere where manners counted for quite as much. I recall saying when the “macaca” thing went down that George Allen was toast because he had displayed bad manners in public.

    Now, with certain counties becoming all Trumpish, I don’t know what’s with that, since he embodies the stereotypical thing that the Virginians I knew (I lived in Williamsburg and James City County) all hated – a rude New Yorker.

  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I’ve never lived somewhere where manners counted for quite as much.

    A focus on “manners” is often an expression of insularness. It’s a way of setting up a huge complex of unwritten rules than can be used to justify ostracizing outsiders without openly saying it’s because they’re outsiders.

    Lots of people have noted how things like “southern charm” or “minnesota nice” are really forms of passive aggressiveness.

  6. Kylopod says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Bless your heart!

  7. Kurtz says:

    @Kylopod: @Stormy Dragon:

    I’m having ashbacks to the “sweetie” brouhaha a few months ago.

    Or was it “honey?”

  8. Moosebreath says:


    Generally agree, though Colorado and Nevada would be other examples of states turning blue in the last few decades, just as West Virginia and Ohio are in the other direction.

  9. Kylopod says:


    Generally agree, though Colorado and Nevada would be other examples of states turning blue in the last few decades,

    Yes, though I’d class them more as historical swing states that shifted to the left. Virginia was a historically Republican state (since the 1950s anyway–before that it had been part of the Solid South) that very suddenly and dramatically moved toward the Dems after 2004.

  10. de stijl says:


    Okay, hon. You betcha.


    I want to go to pancakes house.

    for other reasons that amuse me. I say that every time I pass an IHOP.

    Anytime anyone calls you “hon” they are likely shining you on.

  11. wr says:

    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

  12. Andy says:

    It’s not just Virginia, it’s most states.

    Most of our country is far too in thrall to national politics.

  13. de stijl says:

    @de stijl:

    I never realized how often Minnesotans say “Okay” until Fargo.

    We say “Okay” a lot as an inobtrusive place-holder. I hear you, friend.

    Never noticed it until the Coen bros highlighted it.

    Well, the little guy was kinda funny lookin’.

    I love that whole scene with her interviewing the two young women. Bless and acknowledge Frances McDormand. She is a national treasure. Deserves all her award ceremony hardware and many more.

    I know people from White Bear Lake. Go bears!

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Kurtz: Anyone calls me sweetie, I’d just chirp back: “oh, so you’re a River Song fan as well?”

  15. Jc says:

    If it were not for Northern Virginia, the state would be pretty red. I am born and bred Fairfax guy and still am in NVA. It is definitely one of the more diverse areas around. I would argue it is very representative of the nation as a whole. Primarily Democratic in its highly educated densely populated areas and GOP in its rural and distant suburb areas. A lot of Fed contractors and a lot of IT. Has blown up so much over the years. A lot of moderates that can swing blue for President and Senate, yet still carved up enough to be thoroughly GOP at the rep level and local level. Although very close to 50/50, we all agree traffic sucks….and it’s starting back up again….

  16. Conewago says:

    The only thing “weird” about Virginia is that the real Virginia has been swamped – possibly forever – by “expats” who came from states ruined by their own existential fascination with liberal modernity and its 3 pillars of sprawl, sodomy, subsidies, and secular materialist “science.”

    The real Virginia had its death warrant signed the day FDR successfully used his back door to war to create the giant imperialist mega-state in DC. It’s amazing that the real Virginia held on for as long as it did.

    Of course this presaged(s) troubles in the rest of the South, as we’ve already seen with the stolen election in Florida and the continued domination of the Texas GOP by RINO neocons.

  17. Conewago says:

    @Conewago: *4* pillars

  18. Conewago says:

    @Moosebreath: Ohio has never turned blue or red. Ohio has always been a swing state, and probably the most representative and accurate swing state in the entire country. The last two times Ohio was wrong were 1960 and 2020 – both stolen elections (although, in fairness, Nixon was also cheating in California in 1960).

    P.S. Idiots try to dismiss the drop in county bellwether accuracy, claiming it’s because those counties (and states like Ohio) are no longer representative of demographic accuracy or partisanship. This is completely stupid seeing as how those same counties were right in very similar elections like, ya know, 2016.

  19. Conewago says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Right, and liberal, cosmopolitan society DOESN’T use a series of massive unwritten rules to enforce conformity upon the rest of us.

    Get real. The question that matters is, which orthodoxy do you want to believe in? I’ll take the orthodoxy of the rural South over your brutally tyrannical Western neo-liberal regime that hypocritically looks the other way while its leaders kill off God knows how many millions of people through abortion, opioid pill mills, and wars overseas.


  20. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Conewago: Get help, fella. You need it.