As experts track the increasing political divides in the country, candidates for the 26th Senate District said that local residents were not giving into partisan extremism.
In the 26th Senate District, incumbent Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, is fighting to keep his seat from Democratic challenger April Moore, of Shenandoah County, for a second time.
The upcoming election on Tuesday will decide who controls the state house in Richmond. For now, Republicans hold a one seat majority in both the House of Delegates and the Senate.
Despite these stakes, both Moore and Obenshain agree that in the 26th Senate District and other local races in the Valley, that residents are still willing to hear differing opinions.
“Most people, I find will listen and if they do disagree, will do so politely,” Moore said. “I think we have to keep working at connecting with one another.”
“For the most part, people are just very friendly — they’re happy to talk and share their concerns,” he said.
Tim LaPira, a political scientist and professor at James Madison University, said that the gap between Democrats and Republicans federally has been widening for decades.
“Polarization started happening post-Watergate in the Reagan years,” LaPira said. “And since, has been gradually increasing.”
Despite this widening gap on the national level, Obenshain said that politicians in the state house could agree on 90% to 95% of issues.
“The gridlock in Washington and hyper-partisan behavior seems to prevent them from getting anything done,” he said. “That has been very different from my experience in Richmond.”
Obenshain said there are philosophical issues he would not move on, such as limited government, but many of the things state representatives address are simply regular, non-ideological problems.
Moore also said there were large issues that the Republican party has stopped, such as raising the minimum wage or action on climate change reforms, two key parts of her platform.
These differences are important to highlight during an election, Obenshain said.
“I think it’s important for people to know what differentiates the candidates. Otherwise why vote for one as opposed to another?” he said.
Even with these differences in opinions, Americans can still come together, Moore said.
“I think most people want to connect with their neighbors and they want to be polite,” she said.
Both Obenshain and Moore also agreed that some aspects of the media increase partisanship by focusing on the smaller, more divisive matters.
“They’re a lot more fun to read about in the newspaper and do stories on [for] TV, but the work in the legislature has been getting done even with those 5% to 10% of issues out there,” Obenshain said.
The solidifying of party ideologies has also grown partisanship, LaPira said.
“The era of American politics where we didn’t have polarization was because the Democratic party was basically two parties — northern and southern,” he said.
The northern Democrats were more socially liberal than the southern Democrats, which meant that Republicans could be scattered to the left or right of Democratic party members, LaPira said.
When applying the metric commonly used by political scientists, no Democrats have been further right than any Republicans and vice versa over the past three Congresses, he said.
“They don’t overlap at all,” LaPira said.
And the polarization problem doesn’t originate from grassroots voters, but from party and political heavyweights, he said.
“The way public opinion tends to work is that it tends to follow the elites, and as parties have polarized nationally, voters have tended to follow suit,” LaPira said. “Party ideas become more important.”
Moore said that it is the role of politicians, to help lower political tensions to avoid distrust and violence.
“I think everybody who has a public role has a responsibility to not whip up that kind of frenzy,” she said, adding “we all have a responsibility.”
LaPira said he could see a shift happening in the future away from increased partisanship, but also said “I don’t do crystal balls.”
Many people are “trapped” by political affiliations and identities, he said, causing them to hold tighter to partisanship.
“I don’t know that there’s a solution because it’s baked into the cake of American politics when you have a two-party system,” LaPira said.