By Carten Cordell and Katie Watson | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — The U.S. Senate candidate from Virginia who emerges in Washington, D.C., will have taken several roads to get there.
The winner, either Republican George Allen or Democrat Tim Kaine, will have traveled the congested, super speedway-like Beltways of Northern Virginia and, conversely, the two-lane, dusty rural byways in the southern part of the state.
Different regions with different concerns.
As the candidates point fingers over topics such as sequestration and the Silver Line Metro project in booming Northern Virginia, voters in southern Virginia ponder which of the candidates would, if elected, address their foundering economies.
“The way the demographics break out, it’s kind of like two states in one, almost,” Pittsylvania County Republican Committee Chair Chris Carter said.
Virginia has the 10th-lowest unemployment rate in the nation at 5.7 percent, but those numbers are aided by the economic boon emanating from bordering Washington, D.C. In southern Virginia, particularly in the border counties, the unemployment rate is 8 percent or higher. In some areas, such as Danville near the North Carolina border, it’s still in double digits, as of June.
“I think, overall, people still are frustrated about it, because they do see … low unemployment for the whole state, but they look around at their own neighbors and see that’s not the case in their areas,” said Carter.
Textiles used to thrive in the region, and the area has yet to recover from the loss in 2006 of historic textile maker Dan River Mills, which, in its heyday, employed thousands.
Russell County in southwest Virginia, a former auto hub, tells a similar story. Add to that the recent struggles of plants making products for Alcoa, a world leader in aluminum production, and International Automotive Components, a global supplier of automotive parts.
Russell County’s unemployment rate was at 9.2 in June, even with a growing technology industry.
“We’re oftentimes overlooked because of more populous Northern Virginia base and tidewater Virginia areas,” Russell County Democratic Party chair Steve Banner said of Republicans’ treatment of the south, admittedly from a partisan perspective.
Therein lies the irony.
It’s that disconnect that has seemingly energized the state’s southern base, perhaps enough to change how residents view the candidates and their respective parties, said Harry Rutherford, chairman of the Industry Development Authority of Russell County.
“It used to be very partisan in this area, but now, it’s getting to the point now, ‘Who’s going to do something for us?’ said Rutherford. “… (Voters) will cross party lines in their voting more than they used to.”
People want their votes to count and, toward that end, volunteers are emerging to not only articulate their worries about the local economy but to express their views on social issues, as well.
“Most people are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage,” Carter said. “It’s kind of a laid-back area. We’re still kind of country-based in this area, especially in Pittsylvania County. We’re more rural. You tend to see those strong religious beliefs displayed more in this area.”
Southern Virginia’s rural identity allows the parties to connect with voters in a more community-based way, but local party leaders say volunteers are now seeking them out.
Carter recounted a story of a local woman who, unable to find a job since the start of the Great Recession, began working regularly with the GOP.
Typically, finding the eight volunteers needed to man the Giles County Democratic Committee booth at the agricultural fair in town — the main annual event for generating voter interest — is a challenge, said Joan Kark, the county’s party chair.
Not this year.
“The Democrats are very energized to work hard for our three candidates,” Kark said.
Allen toured southern Virginia last week, including a visit to Danville, where he talked about job creation and its import to the region. Outside the rural south, Kaine visited Hampton and Williamsburg, where he spoke to the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, outlining his plan to attract more corporate investment in the state.
But Banner said the real campaign should start after Labor Day.
“Southwest Virginia is usually late to kick in,” Banner said. “It’s still summer. Fall’s when you start big-time politicking.”
Nevertheless, voter engagement in Southern Virginia will be critical for both candidates, Carter says.
“I really do think the south, south side and southwest Virginia are definitely crucial,” said Carter. “Definitely crucial, because we have to make sure we get our people out and make sure they get out the vote and … try to run these margins up as much as we can.”
Cordell and Watson can be reached at, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.