By then, both Warner and Kaine had also embraced gay marriage, universal background checks, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. As a senator in 2013, Kaine also voted to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and ban high-capacity ammunition magazines (while Warner, with one foot still in rural Virginia, opposed both measures).
The story came full circle when Warner faced reelection during the Republican wave year of 2014. Most of the smaller and more rural counties where Warner had made his signature breakthroughs 13 years earlier in his gubernatorial race turned away from him. Counties such as Roanoke, Bedford, Botetourt, Wise, and Scott that Warner had won, or in which he had suppressed the GOP edge in 2001 produced big margins for his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie. Warner survived by fewer than 18,000 votes, against a national wave that swept away many other Democrats, mostly through his strength in the metropolitan areas of Northern Virginia and Richmond and a competitive performance in Hampton Roads. (As David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report points out, while Warner retreated in the rural counties that had buoyed him earlier, he also ran slightly, though critically, ahead of McAuliffe in several of them.)
“On election night last time, it was a Republican turnout model in 2014, and Gillespie was doing really well until he hit Fairfax,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican U.S. representative who represented the county. “And when he hit Fairfax he hit the blue wall there and got crushed. Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, eastern Prince William, even eastern Loudon.”
Davis, a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee and copious student of voting trends, says that Trump is likely to intensify Virginia’s urban-rural divergence from both ends. “Trump will run even better in some of these rural areas and worse in these urban areas,” Davis says. “These are trends that have developed over a series of elections, and Trump just puts an exclamation point on them.” Davis predicts Trump could lose Fairfax County alone by 170,000 votes, which would be a deficit over 50 percent greater than Romney’s.
Sabato forecasts the same pattern. And that, he says, leaves Trump facing very long odds in Virginia against a Democratic ticket continuing to consolidate the advantage in the state’s population centers that has underpinned Kaine’s career.
“It’s over, it’s totally over,” Sabato insists. “Because the margins for Clinton-Kaine in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Hampton Roads will be very substantial. Trump will run up the same kind of Cuccinelli rural majorities, and Cuccinelli lost by two and half points. But it’s going to be a lot worse this time because it’s going to be a presidential turnout.”
Clinton and Kaine will be counting on this same pattern of strong metropolitan showings to offset what could be a stampede toward Trump in non-urban areas far beyond Virginia. The same equation is key to the Democrats’ hopes in other competitive Sunbelt states like Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida, as well as familiar Rustbelt battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa. “The Virginia model,” says Sabato, “is now the national Democratic model.”
Leah Askarinam contributed reporting.