A Case Of The ‘Purples’?
JMU Influence May Be Helping To Reshape Harrisonburg’s Politics
Posted: November 8, 2012
Democratic incumbent Kai Degner was Tuesday’s top City Council vote-getter in increasingly “blue” Harrisonburg. (Photos by Nikki Fox)
Democratic Mayor Richard Baugh greets voters outside Keister Elementary School on Election Day.
Harrisonburg’s electorate, which for years had been solidly Republican red, has been inching toward Democratic blue through the last two presidential elections. In 2008, it turned “purple” by voting for President Barack Obama, whom the city selected again Tuesday to solidify that status.
Over the same period, it voted for two Democratic senators, two Democrats for the House of Representatives and five of eight Democratic candidates for City Council.
The shift is indicative of the money and know-how Obama’s campaign brought to Harrisonburg to register and turn out college students for elections, said Bob Roberts, a JMU political science professor.
“The Democratic Party in town couldn’t do anything,” he said of the limited success of Democrats in the city before 2008. “They had no organization. The Obama [camp] brought people in who knew how to organize. Without those people, Democrats don’t do very well.”
Such a shift happens more in independent college cities like Harrisonburg, where students tend to vote for more progressive candidates, Roberts said.
“Cities always bring in younger, more diverse [people],” he said. “They want what cities can offer. They have different expectations of what life should be.”
And that’s reflected at the ballot box.
“Simply put, you have a different demographic there that is more prone to be Democratic,” said David McQuilkin, a retired political science professor from Bridgewater College.
He agreed with Roberts that the Democratic Party has mined the city much more “vigorously” for votes since Republicans last won a presidential vote count here in 2004.
The trend toward turning Harrisonburg purple seemed to start two years later, when Republican George Allen, the incumbent senator in 2006, beat Democrat Jim Webb in the city by just 71 votes (Webb won the overall race statewide). In 2000, Allen defeated then-Sen. Chuck Robb, a Democrat, by 1,591 votes in Harrisonburg.
Yet the city has also backed Republicans in the General Assembly and other state offices, including governor, even with the purple-to-blue shift.
Roberts said the large amount of money involved in national politics, as opposed to the state level, is likely a factor as to why Harrisonburg voting habits haven’t quite changed for offices in Richmond.
“The numbers are so large, you should be able to get a certain percentage of [students] to vote,” he said of the national races. “It’s a very time-consuming and labor-intensive process.”
Not An ‘Irreversible’ Trend
Tracy Evans, chairman of the Harrisonburg Republican Committee, said the local GOP must figure out how to better tap into the student vote in the future and possibly court it, as the party would recruit any other voters.
“It’s certainly a trend I notice and I’m not pleased with,” he said of the city’s voting habits, “but I don’t think it’s an irreversible trend. Four years from now, we could be very red. We could swing back.”
One certainty for 2016 is that Virginia will again be a swing state, the professors say. Harrisonburg is a symbol of the state as a whole in having a population that continues to diversify, they say, which leads to a battle between progressive voters in cities and conservative rural populations for Virginia’s 13 electoral votes.
“The whole demographic of the state is starting to move in a different direction,” McQuilkin said. “It’s going to [continue to be] a swing state or [will become] a more Democratic state.”
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or email@example.com