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Bellwether: How Virginia may forecast the nation's political future

David Toscano
David Toscano
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Former Charlottesville mayor, long-time state delegate and House Minority Leader David Toscano talks politics his new book, Bellwether.

When Glenn Youngkin was elected governor last year, some people were surprised. Democrats had been winning statewide elections for years, and they had concluded Virginia was a blue state. In fact, Democrat David Toscano – a former mayor of Charlottesville and a delegate for 14 years – knew otherwise.

“It’s hard for the party in power to win the governorship in Virginia and the reason for that is there’s usually a kind of backlash in Virginia in the first election after the presidential, so you had a backlash against Biden occurring,” he says.

That observation is one of many in Toscano’s new book, Bellwether – a political history of the commonwealth. He notes that this is one of just two states that do not elect governors at the same time presidents are chosen and the only state where they can serve just one term.

“A lot of these governors are just getting up their heads of steam by the time they have to leave office, and they’re essentially lame ducks 2.5 years into their terms,” Toscano laments, but he doesn’t think that situation will change.

“You’d have to change the constitution, and the way we change the constitution in Virginia is special too. We have to have any constitutional amendment supported by two legislative sessions separated by an election, and then it goes on the ballot for the voters to approve.”

Virginia signals the nation on campaign financing – who is giving money to which candidates and causes.

“When it comes to campaign finance, Virginia is the wild, wild west," Toscano says. "Anybody can give as much money to whomever they want whenever they want except during legislative sessions, and as a result prominent donors, whether they’re institutional like Dominion Power or a progressive advocacy group like a labor union or wealthy individuals like the wealthy man from Illinois that gave $500,000 a couple of years ago to a delegate who represents parts of Madison and Culpeper – Nick Freitas. $500,000 to one delegate!”

Because it’s home to many ethnic groups, Virginia may also point to trends in different communities.

“In the year 2000 Virginia had 7 million inhabitants. Twenty percent of them were black and 70% of them were white. By the year 2020, there were 8.6 million Virginians. Fifty-eight percent of them were white. The Black percentage didn’t drop much at all, and the difference was made up of Asians and Hispanics,” he explains.

The drop in Caucasians came, in part, because in 2020 the census created a new category for multi-racial people who might – earlier – have called themselves white, but overall Toscano says, this state is a model of diversity.

“Now one out of every seven people who live in Virginia were actually born outside of the United States, and over half of the lawmakers were not born in Virginia. That is very different from 2000!”

Tpscano adds that rural populations, which tend to go Republican, are shrinking and predicts the pendulum will swing back toward Democrats in statewide office. One other thing Virginia often does is to provide presidential candidates who had served as governor.

“You know Mark Warner, after he won the governorship, he was thought to be potentially a presidential candidate. Of course Tim Kaine ran for vice president. McDonnell was considered to be someone who would run. Jim Gilmore ran several times. Doug Wilder ran. The joke around Richmond politics is after you get elected governor the first thing you think about is walking down Pennsylvania Avenue.”

But if Glenn Youngkin wants to be president, the author says, he will have to defend his record as governor, taking actions that were far more conservative than his campaign led people to expect.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.