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Editorial: Lynchburg goes blue. How did that happen?

Editorial: Lynchburg goes blue. How did that happen?

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Here’s one sign of how much things have changed: In this year’s presidential election, Lynchburg went Democratic for the first time since 1948.

Symbolically, that’s a landmark event: Lynchburg, the home of the Falwells and Liberty University, has been the nation’s evangelical capital, a place where Republicans have routinely made pilgrimages to seek support.

Now it’s gone blue.

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. Nationwide, we’re seeing a great realignment, as voters in metro areas become more Democratic and voters in rural areas become more Republican. This year in Virginia, James City County in the Williamsburg suburbs went Democratic in a presidential election for the first time since 1968. Virginia Beach went Democratic for the first time since 1964. Chesterfield County in the Richmond suburbs went Democratic for the first time since 1948. Lynchburg can claim an even older historical distinction: Joe Biden’s percentage in Lynchburg was higher than any Democratic presidential candidate in the city since 1944.

The particulars: Biden edged Donald Trump in the Hill City by 48.6% to 46.5% with 3.8% for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen. (That, by the way, is was the second-best showing for Jorgensen anywhere in Virginia, and more than double her statewide share of 1.5%).

In 1948, Harry Truman carried Lynchburg with 36.8% to 35.2% for Republican Tom Dewey and 27.3% for Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond.

The last time a Democratic presidential candidate took a majority in Lynchburg was 1944, when Franklin Roosevelt polled 64.1% while winning a fourth term during World War II.

Biden didn’t take a majority in Lynchburg but he did eclipse the 47.4% that Barack Obama took while losing the city in 2008. In most other elections over the past two decades, Democratic presidential candidates ran in the low 40s (Hillary Clinton took 41.5% in 2016, Obama 43.7% in 2012, John Kerry 44.5% in 2004, Al Gore 44.1% in 2000).

To better understand Lynchburg’s red-to-blue transformation let’s look back in time — and then deeper into the numbers.

That 1948 campaign saw the Democratic Party start to fracture over civil rights. The big Republican breakthrough in Virginia came in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower carried the state — and swept in three Republican congressmen, William Wampler in the 9th in Southwest Virginia, Richard Poff in the 6th which then covered Lynchburg to the New River Valley and Joel Broyhill in the 10th in Northern Virginia. In 1944 and 1948, Republican Tom Dewey had managed only 36% and 35% in Lynchburg. In 1952, the political poles reversed. Now it was Eisenhower who took 65% in the city while Democrat Adlai Stevenson managed just 35% — about what Truman had received four years previously in a multi-candidate field. Those margins — Republicans in the 60% or better range, Democrats in the 30% or so range — generally held through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and part of the ’80s. Even in the Democratic landslide of 1964, Lyndon Johnson took just 40% in Lynchburg to Barry Goldwater’s 60%.

The first real deviation came in 1996, when Republican Bob Dole fell to 49.7% in Lynchburg and Democrat Bill Clinton rose to 44.7% — with 5% for independent Ross Perot. Even if you figure all of Perot’s vote came from Republicans, that still represented a decline. Other Democrats in the 2000s generally hit Clinton’s mark, but only Obama in 2008 came anywhere close to carrying Lynchburg.

On occasion, Democrats won Lynchburg in state races if there were extenuating circumstances — Mark Warner took 53% in his 2001 governor’s race, but he was also the rare Democrat who performed unusually well in the western part of the state. Generally speaking, Lynchburg was a Republican city. Perhaps the first sign that Lynchburg might be in a mood for realignment came in a 2006 when Democrat Shannon Valentine won a special election to the House of Delegates. In 2009, though Valentine lost — narrowly — in what turned out to be the last good year Republicans have had in the state. A change in the law had also made Lynchburg more Republican; Liberty students were now allowed to vote there.

The Trump years have accelerated a realignment nationwide and Lynchburg hasn’t been immune, even with the Liberty voters. Democrat Ralph Northam came close to carrying Lynchburg in the 2017 governor’s race with 47.2%. The real breakthrough came in 2018, when Democrat Tim Kaine took 50.6% to 45.6% for Corey Stewart, the Trump acolyte whom Republicans nominated for the U.S. Senate. Now comes the 2020 presidential race.

We can’t declare Lynchburg to now be a Democratic city. Biden didn’t take a majority. Warner did in his Senate race— he took a scant 51.6% — but Republican Ben Cline claimed just 53.45% in his House campaign. That’s a majority, but not an impressive one against a weakly funded challenger. We can find only one other Republican House incumbent who has polled so low in Lynchburg — Caldwell Butler took 51% in the Watergate year of 1974 when Republicans everywhere were in jeopardy. We can more properly say that Lynchburg is now competitive — neither red nor blue but purple. The question is whether this blue shift will continue or whether it is unique to the Trump years. We won’t be able to answer that until more elections have passed, but we know that nationwide the realignment of metro areas began decades ago and shows no signs of abating. Roanoke was a Republican bastion in presidential years from the late ’40s into the ’70s, then became competitive, and now is reliably Democratic. Biden took 61.5% of the vote there. As recently as 2000, Fairfax County was voting Republican; now it’s a Democratic stronghold that went 70% for Biden.

The notable thing is that Trump got fewer votes in Lynchburg in 2020 than 2016. That’s unusual because in most places he got more votes as turnout rose. In Roanoke, Trump’s totals went from 14,789 to 15,536. In Lynchburg, though, his totals shrank — from 17,982 to 16,697 while the Democratic vote rose from 14,792 for Hillary Clinton to 17,447 for Biden. That’s because turnout in the Liberty University precinct was unusually low, a sign that Trump did not energize students the way he did four years ago (perhaps because Jerry Falwell Jr. wasn’t there to exhort them?). With a normal vote there, Trump would have carried Lynchburg narrowly. Regardless, Lynchburg, like the nation at large, is being politically transformed. Those who have stereotyped Lynchburg in the past will need to update their impressions of the city.

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