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Commentary: 2022 midterm highlighted by red-blue shift in the 7th

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Where the counties of Loudoun and Prince William have gone will Stafford and Spotsylvania soon follow?

A generation ago, those first two northern Virginia counties were reliably Republican jurisdictions that could counter the more Democratic orientations elsewhere in northern Virginia. Now those two Washington suburban counties are also more Democratic than not, creating challenges for Republicans seeking to win statewide or regional elections.

Further south, this month’s election results in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District suggest the Democrats are gaining market share in the more distant suburbs. Republicans can still win counties here, but sometimes by less than in the past.

In the 7th District, one of the nation’s premiere congressional races, Republican candidate Yesli Vega captured just over 50% of the vote in Stafford and 54% of the vote in Spotsylvania. Those figures are notably below the 58% and 60% shares that Republican Ed Gillespie captured in those two counties in his Senate race against Mark Warner eight years ago. (Gillespie’s 48% share of the vote in Virginia in 2014 matched the 48% vote share that Vega received in the 7th District this month). When comparing the two 48% Republican campaigns against each other, the magnitude of the Republican drop in these two outer ring suburban counties over the past eight years becomes clear.

Vega’s campaign, hobbled by a controversial statement early in the campaign about pregnancy and rape, consistently offered a strongly conservative message, attacking the so-called “Biden-Pelosi” agenda, cheering the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and leaning into her law enforcement background.

That combative conservative message worked well in parts of the district, particularly in areas further from the Interstate 95 corridor — where voting patterns did not change as much as they did in Stafford and Spotsylvania. In King George County, Vega did better than Gillespie, increasing the Republican vote share from 61% to 63% eight years later. In Orange County, 60% of the voters went Republican in both elections (2014 and 2022).

Most voters retain their partisan loyalties year after year. But county election results can change when new voters move to an area, as they did along Interstate 95. The first wave of suburbanization, which our area experienced decades ago, often involved people leaving the cities in search of more conservative suburban communities. But the current, second wave of suburbanization is quite different — it involves people relocating in search of more affordable housing close to major highways and mass transit. These second-wave suburban population shifts are less about seeking a conservative refuge from more urban areas than they once were.

The two maps that accompany this column can help tell this story of shifting electorates in our region. The first is a traditional map of the 7th District results by precinct. The darkest red areas identify the most pro-Vega jurisdictions, while the darkest blue areas mark those most supportive of Abigail Spanberger, the re-elected Democratic candidate.

The less one-sided outcome in 2022 in Stafford and Spotsylvania, this illustration reveals, is a result of concentrated Democratic support in the parts of those two counties closest to Interstate 95 and Virginia Railway Express stations, a corridor bursting with new townhouses and housing developments. (Other key areas of the district where Spanberger was most popular, including eastern Prince William County and Fredericksburg City, have long been supportive of Democratic candidates and have become more so in recent years.)

Most of the precincts in the 7th District are red, and many are deep red, as befits the long-time Republican advantages in the district’s less populated counties, including King George, Culpeper, and Orange. Many of these more rural precincts, areas more distant from the second wave of less partisan suburbanization along I-95, are about as Republican as they were a decade ago. The large number of acres in those precincts creates a very red map.

Another, more effective, way to look at the 7th District election is via a cartogram, which resizes the precincts to account for the size of the electorate in these various voting locations. That second map, which resembles a small blue snail sitting atop a larger redder snail that has a blue stomach, shows how crucial voters in Prince William County and along the Interstate 95 corridor were to Spanberger’s success. The small blue dots of precincts in Fredericksburg and central Orange and Culpeper expand here to take account of the larger number of voters concentrated there, as do the highly populated and mostly dark blue precincts of eastern Prince William County.

This 7th District cartogram illustrates more clearly the challenges faced by Republicans in our region going forward: the party’s continued success depends on connecting more effectively with voters closer to the I-95 corridor, newly arrived voters who aren’t swayed by the culturally conservative messages that continue to resonate so effectively in Orange and King George.

Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Stephen Hanna is professor of geography at UMW.

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