Battle lines drawn in the heartland of the civil war


THE AFFLUENT and spacious suburbs that circle Virginia’s state capital of Richmond have been so solidly Republican in the past that presidential campaigns bypassed it for decades.

That’s all changing. What was predominantly a white and conservative rural county is becoming a diverse, suburban melting pot.

To the west are the large, upper-middle class homes, tree-lined avenues and country clubs. To the more industrial southwest are the newer, cheaper homes and Latino food stores.

While unemployment rates of 5 per cent are well below the national average, there is still economic anxiety for both candidates to exploit. As a result, both presidential campaigns are bombarding the state with messages about who will do best for a beleaguered middle class.

In many ways, the story of the battle for votes in Henrico County – a swing county, in a swing state – is a microcosm of the wider presidential election campaign.

University of Virginia professor of politics Larry Sabato says the county is likely to be a bellwether for the state as a whole.

“This is a place that leans Republican, but it can edge towards the Democrats if they’re having a good year. If it does go blue again, it will be an endorsement of Obama’s economic policies,” he says.

In 2008, Barack Obama won Virginia, the first time a Democrat had done so since Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. It was a victory built on the strength of gains he made in places such as Henrico, along with a strong turnout in more liberal northern Virginia. If he is do so again, he will need to reconnect with the suburbs of cities such as Richmond and other traditionally conservative cities.

Republicans have other ideas. Earlier this week, thousands gathered at the western end of Henrico County for a country fair-style event that doubled up as a rally for Republicans. Signs at the entrance reminded attendees that visitors were not allowed to carry concealed weapons.

Children flocked to the bouncy castles while adults queued for beer and free pulled pork as they listened to speeches.

“Anybody who works for a living and wants a job should be on our side,” George Allen, running for the US Senate against Democratic former governor Timothy Kaine, told the crowd. “And, indeed, anybody who cares about the future of their children and grandchildren should be on our side . . . We ought to get about 100 per cent of the vote.”

One of those fully committed to the Republican cause is Bill Kelly. In a country founded on optimism he is among the most upbeat of all. He feels determination, self-reliance and hard work will pay off – but he’s worried at what four more years of president Obama’s leadership would bring.

“Look, we’ve lost our triple-A credit rating, we owe a tonne of money, we’re running deficits and we’re not being fiscally responsible,” says Kelly (53).

“I look at places like Greece and I get worried. I don’t like owing money to China . . . We’re a superpower – there, I said it – and one of the largest economies in the world. I know that we can make up a lot of ground with the right policies.”

A former painting contractor, his optimism was tested four years ago. As the subprime housing crisis hit, his business dried up. He decided to close the business and turn his passion into a business: teaching martial arts. Work is going well, Kelly says, and he employs two of his sons.

“It’s very satisfying. I teach courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control – and indomitable spirit,” he says. “It’s what tae kwon do is all about, and it what this country needs too.”

At the other end of Henrico County is Kashif Winston. He’s 25 and wearing an Obama-Biden badge and sees the world much differently. As an African American he felt giddy with excitement four years ago. This time he feels just as passionate.

“As I see it, the Republicans are just about what’s in it for themselves,” he says. “I’m not so sure they want the country or the wider community to improve – they just want to improve their own situation.”

As a chemistry graduate, Winston hopes one day to open a cosmetics laboratory and dreams of expanding it into a highly successful business. In the meantime, he’s working as a YMCA lifeguard and renting an apartment with a friend.

“Obama’s done a good job,” he says. “But things take time. We were never going to see the change he promised after just four years. Look at the mess he was left with after eight years of George Bush,” he says.

In the meantime, the fight for middle-class votes goes on. Hundreds of times a day, ominous-sounding advertisements warn that the president is killing the economy, or that Romney has been shipping US jobs overseas.

On the outskirts of the town, the signs that point to civil war battlefields are a reminder that the battle for Henrico County is nothing new. This area was at the heart of the civil war more than 150 years ago. As the industrial and political capital of the confederacy, the county was the physical and psychological prize over which two American armies contended in bloody battle. It’s a reminder, if any were needed, that neither side is going to give up this campaign without a fight.