Former state Sen. Bill Carrico of Grayson County is thinking about running for governor. Unlike Democrats, who have at least four candidates already and might have five or six, Republicans don’t have a well-defined field yet. One question Carrico will face is this: Is a candidate from rural Southwest Virginia their best choice to win an election that will ultimately be decided in the suburbs of the urban crescent, especially the suburbs of Northern Virginia? Carrico is a smart enough pol that if he runs, he’ll figure out an answer to give there and democracy can sort out the rest.
Today, we’ll confine ourselves to the historical context: How have candidates from Southwest Virginia fared in the past? The last candidate from a rural area to be nominated for governor was Creigh Deeds of Bath County, who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2009. He also didn’t do well, winning just 41.3% of the vote. Deeds, though, did win a resounding victory in that year’s Democratic primary — taking 49.8% in a three-way race. The Democratic electorate is much more urban than the Republican electorate, so Deeds’ primary victory that year is particularly impressive for a rural candidate. That suggests that no one should automatically discount Carrico in a Republican primary where rural voters would count for a bigger share of the electorate than they would in a Democratic contest. Percentage-wise, Deeds ran strongest in rural Virginia in that primary but that wasn’t where he won. He won and won so big in that primary because he took nearly half the vote in Arlington County, Fairfax County, Falls Church and Loudoun County — even though he was running against two candidates from Northern Virginia. Different party, different year, but Carrico might be able to learn something from studying Deeds’ 2009 primary campaign.
Still, Bath County isn’t Southwest Virginia, so for our purposes here today, let’s keep going south and west.
The last candidate from Southwest Virginia to run — and win — statewide was Jerry Kilgore, a native of Scott County who was living in the Richmond area at the time but was widely identified with Southwest Virginia. First, though, he lost. He finished second with 24.6% of the vote in the 1997 Republican primary for attorney general. That showing was considered strong enough that by 2001 he was unopposed for the Republican nomination for the same office, then won handily that November against Democrat Donald McEachin. In 2005, Kilgore was the Republican nomination for governor by a wide margin over a little-known opponent, but then lost the general election to Democrat Tim Kaine.
So which parts of Kilgore’s experience will be relevant to Carrico — the winning or the losing? In that 1997 primary, Kilgore won in Southwest Virginia and the Richmond area, but struggled elsewhere against candidates from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. His 2005 general election campaign provides another cautionary tale. Let’s set the stage: In 2001, Mark Warner had reclaimed the governorship for the Democrats, partly by running strong in Southwest Virginia — and actually winning a lot of counties. Going into the 2005 race, many political analysts wondered how Kaine could possibly win because, with Kilgore as the Republican nominee, there was no way that Kaine could duplicate Warner’s feat in Southwest Virginia. And he didn’t. But he didn’t have to. Instead, he did something else, something unexpected — he flipped Loudoun County and Prince William County in Northern Virginia into the Democratic column. It’s hard to remember now but once those were Republican strongholds. Kaine caught the first wave of a political realignment in the suburbs that has only gained strength since then. Kaine was considered a political miracle worker because he carried Prince William by 49.9% to 48.2%. In the last governor’s race, Democratic Ralph Northam carried Prince William by 61.1% to 37.8% and by then that was considered a pretty normal margin. The point being: Kilgore didn’t connect in Northern Virginia even at a time when Republicans were much more competitive there. Republicans will have to look at all their 2021 contenders and ask which one is best able to make up the ground that’s been lost in the state’s population center of Northern Virginia.
We could go back further in history to find other rural candidates for statewide office. Mary Sue Terry was a legislator from Patrick County when she won her party’s nomination for attorney general in 1985. She won that year, and won again in 1989, before losing the governor’s race in 1993. Terry had other things going for her — she was considered the favorite of the party establishment, and she had the celebrity status of being the first woman to win a statewide election in Virginia. Carrico may not be the former and certainly isn’t the latter. However, the ’80s were such a different time politically that Terry’s example may not be relevant here. As we’ve just seen, even governor’s races in the early 2000s may not be relevant anymore — the political landscape has changed that much.
Still, we’re looking for context, so let’s keep looking. Deeds, Kilgore and Terry were all rural candidates who won their party’s nomination for governor — but none of them won the governorship itself. The last candidate from Southwest Virginia to win the governorship was — well, it depends on how you do the counting. Gerald Baliles — elected in 1985 — grew up in Patrick County and liked to emphasis his family roots there, but politically he was a legislator in the Richmond area when he first ran statewide. So we probably have go back to John Dalton of Radford, who was elected in 1977. Dalton, though, was lieutenant governor at the time so he’d already won a statewide race; he didn’t make a direct jump from Southwest Virginia to the executive mansion. Before that came Linwood Holton — raised in Big Stone Gap, politically based in Roanoke — in 1969. He was the last candidate to do directly from Southwest Virginia to the governorship, assuming you consider Roanoke part of Southwest Virginia. Lindsay Almond went from Roanoke to the attorney general’s job to the governorship in 1957. Elbert Lee Trinkle went directly from Wytheville to the governorship in 1921. No one from as far west as Carrico has won the governorship since Henry Carter Stuart of Russell County in 1913. Will Carrico make history in 2021? Or has the state’s population shifted so much that no one with an address west of the Blue Ridge need bother apply? That’s one of many questions that will get answered next year.
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