Why Virginia's 11th District Race Is One to Watch

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) conducts a town-hall event on health-care reform in Springfield, Va. Gerald Herbert / AP

If you want a glimpse of the political battleground of 2012 and beyond, watch what happens in Virginia's 11th Congressional District on Tuesday. The district is rated the nation's 178th most Democratic out of the 435 House districts by The Cook Political Report, and it's hosting a rematch between Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly and his 2008 challenger, GOP businessman Keith Fimian. The race is currently rated "leaning Democratic" by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "It is a very competitive race," says the center's Isaac Wood. "This district is significant because it could turn a good night for Republicans into a great night [if Fimian wins]. It also would represent a significant reversal from 2008, when Obama carried the district with 57 percent of the vote and Connolly defeated Keith Fimian 55 percent to 43 percent."

A year ago, the really bad sign for Democrats in the 2009 elections was not their losses in a few gubernatorial races, but their losses in obscure local elections in the New York suburbs. Statewide and national elections, especially presidential ones, are often determined by the quality of the candidates and the races they run. The lower down the ballot you go, especially for legislative offices, the less it becomes about the candidates and the more it becomes about partisan preferences. When people vote for congressional seats, or especially state legislative offices, they seldom know much about the candidate, so they vote for the party.

And the suburbs are a leading indicator of the health of the new Democratic coalition. Historically, upscale suburbs have leaned Republican. That's why the Nixon-Reagan revolution was born in Orange County, Calif. The suburbs were the original family-values construct: a mom-and-apple-pie haven. But today's suburbs are more diverse and cosmopolitan. Suburbanites tend to be concerned about Democratic-friendly issues like the environment and education, and are more moderate socially than the GOP's right wing.

Consequently, the suburbs of New York and California trended blue in the 1990s, putting states like California, New Jersey, and Connecticut safely in the Democratic column in presidential elections. In the last decade, emerging knowledge-economy hubs in the suburbs, such as in Northern Virginia and the North Carolina Research Triangle, have led Democrats to make inroads there, and, coupled with the urban Democratic vote, helped Barack Obama carry both states in 2008.

And that is why Virginia's 11th district matters so much. If you drive west from Washington, D.C., you go first through Arlington, which is essentially an extension of Washington and leans Democratic. Then you get into Fairfax, which is among the nation's richest counties, filled with defense contractors, lobbyists' McMansions, and technology companies. It has grown quickly in the last decade, with an influx of highly educated transplants from other parts of the country and immigrants from Asia and Latin America. It also has one of the nation's largest megachurches and plenty of SUVs. It is, in many ways, a snapshot of America's emerging present and developing future.

Virginia's conservative activists are putting their resources into grassroots mobilization in the 11th district. "This close in to D.C., who would have thought [the race] would be close?" says Tim Markey, Virginia director of Americans for Prosperity. "It's one of the richest counties in the country. So extending the Bush tax cuts on top earners is a big issue there."

And if Republicans win, it's not something Democrats can chalk up to the vagaries of who had the stronger candidate—Fimian is widely seen as an underwhelming challenger, and Connolly has tacked to the right to appease the district's more conservative voters.

"Right now Connolly has the edge, since the district is a Democratic one and since Fimian is perhaps a bit further to the right than the average Republican voter in the district," says the Center for Politics' Wood. "It is a slim edge, however, given the higher turnout expected from conservatives and the disillusionment on the Democratic side, coupled with the traditional midterm imbalance, when fewer young people and minorities vote, which is bad news for Democrats."

If Connolly loses, it will be very bad news for Democrats, and a warning to Obama's reelection campaign.