Ahead of the 2006 election cycle, few doubted the advantage Republicans held in Virginia at the federal level. Democrats had not won the Old Dominion in a Presidential race since 1964, when LBJ romped to victory against conservative Senator Barry Goldwater. The GOP was generally successful in Senate races too.
Senior Senator John Warner, a moderate Republican, generally faced more fervent opposition from his own party than from Democrats. (Coincidentally, Warner faced a competitive 1996 race against unrelated Democrat Mark Warner) He would hold his seat until retirement in 2008.
Democrat Chuck Robb, his embattled former colleague, had been spared in a three-way race against Oliver North and J. Marshall Coleman in 1994. The contest remains one of the most memorable in Senate history, eternalized by The Perfect Candidate. Equipped with an untainted nominee in former Governor George Allen, the GOP unseated Robb comfortably in 2000.
Democrats had achieved more success at the Gubernatorial level. Mark Warner made up for his Senate loss by winning the mansion in 2001 and future Senator Tim Kaine won easily in 2005. Some pundits viewed the latter victory as a sign of languishing Republican hopes ahead of the 2006 midterms. The cycle ended up sweeping Republicans out of Congressional power, concluding what had become a referendum on Bush and the Iraq War. No-one foresaw Allen’s loss at the start of the new year.
David Leip’s Atlas (Atlas Colors) 2006 VA Senate Polling
Early polls showed Allen ahead by as much as twenty points, giving him a chance to focus on 2008 Presidential musings. The NRSC really did not think the outcome of Allen’s reelection would be in doubt. Allen mixed conservatism with old-style pragmatism, a well-crafted appeal to a developing state where increasing electoral power lay in the hands of educated suburbanite professionals.
The eventual Democratic nominee was Jim Webb. A one-time Republican, decorated Vietnam veteran, and Reagan Naval Secretary, Webb bested a more liberal challenger in a competitive primary and seemed poised to broaden the Democratic coalition in the general election. But the party was not quite sold on his chances early on. That all changed on August 11th, when Allen made the biggest mistake of his entire political career: the so-called macaca moment.
In the heartland of southwestern Virginia, the Senator decided to deride a Virginia-born Webb campaign operative in what seemed like an attempt to generate crowd appeal. The operative, of Indian descent, was tasked with filming the incumbent’s events. Allen pointed him out, echoing into the crisp air of the fall afternoon. Earnestly, he referred to the young man as “macaca” – a derisive term for monkey in Portuguese – before calling on his companions to welcome the man to America and the “real” Virginia.
Virginia became the darling of national attention over night. The backlash to Allen’s viral comments softened his lead, bringing the safe race into the tossup category overnight. Recognizing the fact that Webb now had a shot, Allen immediately went on the defense. The bulk of his criticism revolved around Webb’s previous comments about women being unfit for combat service. (There is an entire list of controversies you can read about here) By late October, Allen struggled to denationalize the race.
Election day saw the outspoken vet eke out a victory over Senator Allen, 49.6-49.2%. Webb won traditional Democrats in hill counties like Buchanan and Dickenson, localities that are ridiculously Republican today. The outstate swing counties of Alleghany and Buchanan also broke for him.
Allen swept most of rural Virginia, dominated Virginia Beach and Chesterfield, and narrowly won Henrico.
Besides his support from rural and urban black voters, Webb took advantage of swings in the most important region of all: NOVA. Democratic improvements in increasingly-populated Loudon, Fairfax, and Prince William counties enabled Webb to succeed.
Webb was not afraid to speak his mind or break from his party in Washington, a streak that probably convinced him to retire in 2012 after just a single term. Former Governor Tim Kaine ran to replace him, beating Allen’s comeback bid. Webb went on to run a quixotic bid for President as a conservative Democrat in 2016, garnering little traction and dropping out fairly early.
Allen’s Macaca moment is a perfect example of how political fortune can be turned on its head by unsavory word choice. The rising Virginia star very well could have gone on to compete for, and potentially win, his party’s 2008 Presidential nomination if he had not gone viral on that fateful, otherwise mundane, day of the campaign.
It is fair to call this result the beginning of blue Virginia. Republicans have not won a Senate race since losing in 2006, and Democratic Presidential candidates have carried the state in each contest since 2012. Republican victories last month showed us that Democrats by no means have a monopoly at the state level, but it seems like the party is on track to maintain its advantage in federal races. All of that success can be traced back to that first unexpected victory with the most unexpected of candidates.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org