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.