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The Coming Radicalization of Virginia’s Politics

When Barack Obama declared in 2004 that there was no Red America or Blue America, it was states like Virginia that he probably had in mind. In recent years, Virginia has been fertile ground for candidates of both parties: The state’s current governor is Republican, but its previous one was a Democrat; in 2008 the state voted for Barack Obama, but four years earlier it went for George W. Bush. State-wide elections in Virginia have traditionally been hard-fought, and they’ve featured their share of ideologically-blinkered candidates (see: former governor and current Senate candidate George “macaca” Allen), but they’ve also generally lacked the vitriol and coarse ideological rhetoric of the country’s most polarized states.

The people of Virginia may have justly earned a reputation for keeping an open mind at the polls, but the electorate is not the only reason that the state has historically been such a bastion of political diversity and pragmatism. One important factor is the state’s open primary system, in which voters do not have to be a member of a party to vote in party elections. But if a group of Republican state legislators currently pushing to close the state’s primaries has its way, Virginia’s reputation for political comity—and its days as one of the country’s quintessential swing states—may soon be done for.

Virginia is one of 17 states across the country to have such an open or semi-closed system. Geoffery Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tells me that the effect of open primaries, especially in competitive races, has been to strengthen the state’s political independents and dilute the influence of partisan ideologues. It’s no accident that states with open primaries often nominate more temperate politicians than those with closed primaries.

In Virginia, the open primary system has its roots in the state’s one-party past: The state was once so dominated by Democrats—Republicans were hardly a presence in the state at all until the 1960s—that their primaries essentially served double-duty as general elections. Open primaries were intended to encourage participation, and to broaden the party’s appeal so it was more reflective of the state’s diversity.

That may be precisely why Republicans want to get rid of the open primary. After their surge of recent years—they currently hold the Governor’s mansion, as well as the state House and Senate for only the second time since the Civil War—Virginia’s Republicans seem to be seeking to consolidate their ideological grip on the state. To that end, they have decided to target the open primary system itself, seemingly in a bid to heighten their differences with their competitors and to ensure that the party puts forward more consistently conservative candidates—even at the expense of perhaps polarizing the state irrevocably.

In December, the GOP issued a requirement that all voters in its presidential primaries sign a loyalty pledge declaring that they would vote for the Republican nominee in the general election. The pledge wasn’t legally binding, but it did express fears among Republican politicos that Democrats and Independent voters were distorting results in GOP primaries. Many Republicans, including the governor, came out against the oath and it was ultimately scrapped.

But just a few weeks later, in January, a bill sponsored by Republican State Senator Bill Stanley explicitly called for voter registration by political party, which would give both parties the option of a closed primary. The Republican affiliation bill passed through the Privileges and Elections Senate committee with a 8 to 7 vote along party lines and will likely be voted on this legislative session. If it passes, it will not go into effect before the 2012 primaries.

Lee Goodman, general counsel of the Republican Party of Virginia, said the legislation has less to do with a desire to purify the party ideologically than with the party’s right to control its own primary. “Without registration, the parties have been helpless in controlling who participates in their nomination,” Goodman said. “Parties have their First Amendment rights to limit participation in their nomination processes to their adherents.” Republicans have made a number of similar attempts in past years, Goodman told me, but with a presidential election around the corner and the Republicans now in control of state government, the bill stands as good a chance as ever of getting passed.

“It has a little more jet fuel this year,” Goodman said. “Sometimes it takes a major event and some type of major controversy to focus people and policy makers on important policies and decisions and build impetus to effect controversial change.”

That “major event” may come in the form of the upcoming Republican presidential primary, scheduled for March 6. Because of stringent state requirements, only Ron Paul and Mitt Romney qualified to be on the ballot. If a rush of left and right leaning independents show up at the polls and Republicans show up in smaller than usual numbers—owing, perhaps, to the absence of Newt Gingrich from the ballot—Paul stands a chance of having a strong showing, and perhaps even winning, in Virginia.

Democrat Senator Chap Peterson, who has been an outspoken critic of the push for open primaries, says that he suspects it’s the prospect of that kind of election result that’s motivating the GOP’s fervor on the issue. “Maybe the Republicans are scared that Ron Paul is going to get a strong showing in Virginia and that is going to be an embarrassment to Romney and the governor, who just endorsed Romney,” Peterson told me. “As the old saying goes, that’s not my problem.”

But it may soon be. If Republicans manage to pass their bill, it’s likely that the political discourse in Virginia—including the relatively competitive state-wide elections that Virginians have come to enjoy—is going to soon take a sharp right turn. Regular exposure to that type of heightened vitriol is going to have huge implications for the people of Virginia, of course, and for the state’s two parties. But it will also have a meaningful impact on national politics. It may even mean that future presidential candidates will look at Virginia as a state where they should be reluctant to tread, for fear of getting caught in an intensely partisan fray, rather than what it is now: a place where voters’ minds are not yet assumed to be made up.

Perry Stein is an intern at The New Republic