By Bob Gibson
Where is the center of Virginia, and can it hold the Commonwealth together?
America’s 12th largest state, the Old Dominion has geographic, population and political centers, all somewhat related and, at least occasionally, evolving.
Virginia’s geographic center hasn’t changed much since the Civil War when, in 1863, the Mountain State of West Virginia broke off for the Union.
Not accounting for coastal erosion, a rural spot near Mount Rush in Buckingham County a few dozen miles southwest of Scottsville stands as the state’s geographical center.
With no more secessionists threatening the borders, in 1962 the state marked the approximate spot with a highway sign along U.S. 60.
“About two miles south and one-half mile west is the geographical center of the state,” Virginia’s official highway marker proudly proclaims to those drivers rolling past Mount Rush on U.S. 60 at State Route 24.
Virginia’s population center keeps moving north on the state’s map toward Fredericksburg along Interstate 95 and currently is in Caroline County.
As the state’s population of more than 8.5 million people increases, most counties in Northern Virginia are robustly growing while most counties south and west of Buckingham are shrinking. Every Virginia county along the borders with North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky is losing population.
Defining Virginia’s political center is about as slippery a proposition as defining the term “Central Virginia.”
Richmond calls itself Central Virginia. So does Lynchburg. And Charlottesville. Plus Fredericksburg. And Orange. Plus Louisa. Even Culpeper.
As popular as the term is, the truest claim to being Central Virginia belongs to the territory along the line from Buckingham’s Mount Rush to the state’s median population center in Caroline County about 45 miles north of Richmond.
That would give Charlottesville, Albemarle, Fluvanna and Louisa among the strongest claims to the true Central Virginia title, although the label clearly could be shared with Goochland.
Posers to the east, such as Richmond, should more closely examine the state’s map and claim a more descriptive nickname, such as “Place where the James falls into brackish Tidewater.”
As tricky as true claims to Central Virginia may be, those seeking to claim the middle in today’s Virginia politics stand on less than traditionally stable ground.
Thirty years ago, both political parties could claim significant numbers of elected officials squarely in the center, or the middle, of the state’s political spectrum.
Moderate Democrats were flanked on the right and the left by members of their own party who proudly called themselves conservatives or liberals.
Many moderate Republicans from western or Northern Virginia shared the GOP label with conservatives and even the rare, and now nearly extinct, breed of liberal Republicans.
The quaint phrase “The Virginia Way” at least was a genteel Virginia tradition that often saw deals negotiated in the political middle among various sides and interests that talked with each other without wearing the handcuffs of partisan litmus tests imposed by national parties and donors.
Today’s Virginia political middle is many parts more mushy and mercurial; hardly solid ground on which to meet and stand.
Hollowed through partisan evaporation to the left and right, the middle sometimes resembles the gooey no-man’s-land of World War I battlefields pummeled with lobbed shells and poisonous gas.
Politics Professor Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington observed, “As the Republican Party moves right and the Democratic Party moves left, Virginia politics are increasingly looking like national politics, where there are few moderates in either caucus.”
“Fifteen years ago, I would have said the center was somewhere around Gov. Mark Warner, Sen. John Chichester and Sen. Ross Potts,” Farnsworth said. “As Warner has tacked left and as Republican moderates in the Senate have been replaced by more conservative voices, I would say there isn’t much of a center left to hold.”
“A lot of this has to do with the changing nature of the Virginia electorate,” Farnsworth noted. “Democratic candidates in rural areas, who tend to be more moderate, rarely win, and the same goes for Republican candidates in more urbanized areas. While gerrymandering is a key part of the movement to ideological extremes, reduced ticket splitting by voters also explains why few centrists win.”
Some members of each party are trying to hold the Virginia General Assembly’s center together.
One Republican with 14 years of experience in the House of Delegates said moderates now are being defined by the political extremes, and the GOP is undergoing a partisan purification process that cost Democrats many seats.
Delegate Chris Peace, R-Hanover County, added, “The center is holding as long as the majorities are held by margins that beg compromise. But those who cross the aisle are being punished by their own party in this purification movement.”
Political scientist Rachel Bitecofer of Christopher Newport University agrees and added, “Virginia’s electorate is very similar to the national electorate. Like with the national electorate, most voters are still in the middle, but Republicans are more apt to call themselves conservatives than liberals are to call themselves liberals.”
She said 45 percent of Virginia’s voters describe their ideology as moderate and of these, 25 percent say they lean liberal while 19 percent lean conservative. However, she cautioned, “Elections, especially primary elections in state legislative races, are going to be the type of election that more partisan/ideological voters engage in. The more moderate voters also lack the motivations to pay attention and participate.”
Virginia political pundit and speech writer Gordon C. Morse said he thinks the state’s political center “is holding: better than most.”
Morse said one political figure today defines the center more than most: Gov. Ralph Northam.
“Ralph’s still standing,” Morse said. “The public has not cut him loose and a year from now, assuming no other problems, he should be okay. To me, Ralph exemplifies the center right now, meaning he’s pragmatic and thoughtful and disinclined to go running off on some tangent.”
A definition of leadership in the center might be finding things that work without spending public money carelessly.
“Stable is good. Moderation is good,” Morse said. “Go Virginia.”
As ground shifts and slips in the middle, it reflects how Virginia has changed. Thirty to 40 years ago, the political center was closer to the geographical center, as was the population center.
Today, the state is less like Buckingham and resembles the more transitory territory north of Central Virginia.
Most Virginians are no longer born in the state. Many are from the New York and New England areas, or from much farther away.
If Missouri, the nation’s geographic center state, is the “Show Me State,” Virginia is becoming the “Come Here State.”
Virginia’s traditional tendencies toward welcoming new neighbors can make that new political center work if both parties can claim a center that holds more promise than partisan purity.
Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center.