Virginia was the first state to elect an African-American governor, Doug Wilder, in 1990. It has grown to become both a battleground and important swing state in presidential elections, and the off-year gubernatorial races are usually an indicator of which way the state will swing. It’s also an increasingly browning state. Frederick County has seen a 445 percent surge in its Latino population since 2000, while the state’s Latino population has grown 92 percent between 2000 and 2010. Over a third of the state’s population is black, Latino, Asian or Native American. On November 5, the nation will be watching the election results for Virginia’s gubernatorial race, a tight campaign fight between attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, and former Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe. (A third candidate for the Libertarian Party, Robert Sarvis, is also in the race.)
Virginia is most known for it’s middle-ground conservatism: Current governor Bob McDonnell both signed a strict photo voter ID requirement into law and installed a mechanism that restores the voting rights of former felons this year. Of the 80 House members who signed a letter in August saying a government shutdown would be better than funding Obamacare, none were from Virginia.
But Virginia might lose its reputation for moderation this year. The Republican candidate, Cuccinelli, is considered a favorite among tea party supporters, donors and political action committees that typically support extreme conservative causes like banning abortion and gay marriage.
Which is why this year’s governor and lieutenant governor race is so important. A lot is at stake in terms of civil rights and women’s rights, and if the current brand of Republican candidates win, it could be an indication of the general direction for conservative politics. Here are five things to know about Virginia’s gubernatorial race:
1. The winner determines the Voting Rights Act’s future: Virginia was once covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act before it was neutralized by the U.S. Supreme Court. Before that ruling, Virginia passed a controversial voter ID law that had the potential to burden voters of color but still received the approval of the Justice Department. Cuccinelli, as attorney general, mostly played nice with the federal government for that approval but as soon as Section 5 was dismantled he set out to enforce an even stricter voter ID law passed this year by the state legislature. Cuccinelli could have voiced disapproval of the weakening of voting rights protections, like North Carolina’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, did but instead he mocked it. Tomorrow, Cuccinelli will rally with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who this year signed what the Department of Justice has called the most restrictive voter ID law in the nation. McAuliffe meanwhile is campaigning on creating a state-level version of the federal civil rights law.
2. The winner determines how elections are run: We’ve all heard about the long voting lines in Florida, but Virginia wasn’t far behind. There were many reasons for the long waits, which disproportionately impacted voters of color, but it’s the county electoral board members who are in the best position to fix the problems that create long lines. They allocate resources across poll locations and if they decide they only want two booths at a heavy turnout area, then those voters better bring their books and iPads when they go vote. County electoral boards are composed of three members and whatever party wins the governor’s election determines who will make up the two-seat majority. This is important given that some of the current county electoral boards, all with Republican majorities, have been carrying out voter purges under Cuccinelli’s authorization. As many as 57,000 voters might be purged for this election according to the social justice group Virginia New Majority.
3. Reproductive choice is at stake: Cuccinelli is unabashedly anti-choice. Early in his campaign, Cuccinelli compared his own movement to abolish abortion to the movement to abolish slavery. Before that, he used his post as attorney general to block women’s access to reproductive health clinics, namely by refusing to certify state regulations on clinic operations. In the so-called war on women Cuccinelli appears to be one of the marquee generals for his harsh stances on abortion, birth control and even divorce. McAuliffe has vowed to keep the state’s remaining abortion clinics open.
4. Virginia voters are feeling apathy: Though none of the candidates are responsible for the government shutdown this month, Virginia voters seem to be making that association anyway. The Washington Post reported that in a historically active “bellwether district” of Prince Williams County, in northern Virginia, there has been mostly voter apathy. The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board, the paper of record in the state’s capitol, didn’t endorse a candidate for the first time in recent memory. “In the past, The Times-Dispatch has endorsed candidates with varying degrees of enthusiasm,” its editorial board wrote. “We find it impossible to endorse any of the 2013 candidates with even minimal zeal.”
5. There’s a black candidate for lieutenant governor: One of the candidates, Republican E.W. Jackson, is an African-American. Recently, the conservative Christian bishop said that any person who worshipped anything other than Jesus Christ practiced “false religion.” He once tweeted that Barack Obama is the “first homosexual President.” He believes federal government programs that help women are more destructive to black families than slavery was. He also believes that Planned Parenthood is more threatening to black people than the Ku Klux Klan. Despite his extreme positions, Jackson still has the support of 42 percent of likely Virginia voters.