How voters turned Virginia from deep red to solid blue

SOUTH RIDING, Va. — Not long ago, this rolling green stretch of Northern Virginia was farmland. Most people who could vote had grown up here. And when they did, they usually chose Republicans.

The fields of Loudoun County are disappearing. In their place is row upon row of cookie-cutter town houses, clipped lawns, and cul-de-sacs — a suburban landscape for as far as the eye can see. Unlike three decades ago, the residents are often from other places, like India and Korea. And when they vote, it is often for Democrats.

“Guns, that is the most pressing issue for me,” said Vijay Katkuri, 38, a software engineer from southern India, explaining why he voted for a Democratic challenger in Tuesday’s elections. “There are lots of other issues, but you can only fix them if you are alive.”


Katkuri’s vote — the first of his life — helped flip a longtime Republican state Senate district and deliver the Virginia State House to the Democratic Party for the first time in a generation. It was a stunning political realignment for a Southern state, and prompted days of prognosticating about President Trump’s own standing with suburban voters nationally in 2020. But while political leaders come and go, the deeper, more lasting force at work is demographics.

Once the heart of the confederacy, Virginia is now the land of Indian grocery stores, Korean churches, and Diwali festivals. The state population has boomed — up by 38 percent since 1990, with the biggest growth in densely settled suburban areas like South Riding. One in 10 people eligible to vote in the state were born outside the United States, up from 1 in 28 in 1990. It is also significantly less white. In 1990, the census tracts that make up Katkuri’s Senate district were home to about 35,000 people — 91 percent of them white. Today, its population of 225,000 is just 64 percent white.


“It’s a totally different world,” said Charles Poland, 85, a retired history professor whose family has lived in Loudoun County for four generations. His family farm is now dotted with subdivisions filled with four- and five-bedroom homes that sell for $750,000. The family legacy is a road named Poland. “If my parents came back today, they wouldn’t recognize the place. The changes came like a tidal wave.”

It’s not just Virginia. From Atlanta to Houston, this pattern is repeating itself — a new kind of suburbanization that is sweeping through politics. The densely populated inner ring suburbs are turning blue, while the mostly white exurban outer ring is redder than ever. Elections are won and lost along that suburban line, and in some places — like Atlanta, Denver, and Riverside County, Calif. — Democrats have begun to breach Republicans’ firewalls.

But in other cities — like Charlotte, Indianapolis, and St. Louis — the Republican advantage in the outer-ring areas countered the gains that Democrats made in more densely populated neighborhoods.

Democrats took control of the House and elevated Nancy Pelosi to speaker in 2018 because of victories in these fast-changing parts of America, and both parties are preparing for battle over these voters in 2020.

“What was interesting about 2018 was not just that Democrats succeeded in places where they didn’t in 2006, but also that they did as well in places that 10 years ago we never would have considered competitive,” said Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, which provides analysis of elections and races.


In Virginia, the political pendulum has swung several times in the State House over the past decade. Large swaths of Virginia are still very conservative and Trump is popular in those places. In 2016, he won 93 of Virginia’s 133 counties, but it wasn’t enough to take the state.

The influx of immigrants and their US-born children, the spread of high-density suburbia, and the growth of higher education all tilt the field toward the Democrats.