The ‘swamp’ strikes back: The federal bureaucracy wins in Virginia

The ‘swamp’ strikes back: The federal bureaucracy wins in Virginia
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By any measure, the 2017 election was a terrible night for Republicans. Not only did Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie lose to Democrat Ralph Northam by more than eight percentage points, the once-solidly-red Virginia House of Delegates will likely end up in the hands of the Democrats, who gained a stunning 14 seats in the state’s lower house.

Pundits and analysts across the political spectrum have said this electoral earthquake is proof Republicans are free-falling, weighed down by countless allegations about Russian collusion and an inability to fulfill important campaign promises, such as replacing Obamacare. They say President Trump is pushing independents away from the party. Perhaps they are right, but a closer look at the election data reveals something very different might have occurred. 

It’s no secret Virginia’s demographics have been changing over the past decade, but few realize just how dramatic the shift has been and how closely tied it is to the growth of the administrative state in Washington, D.C. 


During the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial election, Republican Bob McDonnell received 1,163,651 votes, defeating Democrat Robert Creigh Deeds by more than 344,000 votes just one year after Democrats, led by the charismatic Obama, took firm control of Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, Northam beat Gillespie handedly, despite Gillespie receiving 1,172,771 votes, nearly 10,000 more votes than what McDonnell earned when he won in 2009.


Gillespie didn’t lose because he wasn’t able to secure enough Republicans or even Republican-leaning independents. He lost because there are far more Democrats, and data show many of them moved to the state during the Obama years, when government was expanding dramatically.

When President Obama was elected in 2008, the population of Fairfax County, located just outside of Washington, was 1.04 million. By 2016, the population had skyrocketed to 1.13 million, an increase of 86,000 people in just eight years. At the height of the Obama administration’s power, in 2010, the county’s population grew by an incredible 29,700 in one year. And as election results seem to show, the overwhelming majority of those moving to Fairfax County, as well as other nearby regions, support the Democratic Party and the expansion of government.

In 2009, 138,655 voters in Fairfax County cast their ballots for the Republican McDonnell, while 134,189 voted for Deeds. In the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race, in the midst of Obama’s massive government buildup, 178,746 people voted for the Democrat Terry McAuliffe. On Tuesday, Northam received a whopping 254,919 votes. Over the same period, Republican votes stayed about the same. In fact, Gillespie received 7,000 more votes than the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2013. 

As these numbers, which only reflect one county of several similar counties in northern and eastern Virginia, show, the Democrats’ power in Virginia has been increasing in large part because of the expanding size of the federal government. What happened on Tuesday should shock no one, especially considering how aggressive Trump has been in his attempt to scale back the number of federal employees in Washington and his desire to cut regulations, the lifeblood of the countless administrative agencies occupying the nation’s capital.

The American Action Forum’s Dan Goldbeck noted in October  that “new regulatory burdens [under Trump] are a fraction of those established under Obama’s first six months; overall regulatory volume has slowed to historically low levels; and a number of notable deregulatory measures have been initiated.”

Trump has also called for slashing the budgets of some of the most bloated and overstaffed federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, whose budget Trump wanted to cut by 30 percent, a proposal congressional Republicans rejected.

Whether you like Trump or not, one thing is certain: More people in Virginia are more reliant on the federal government for their jobs than ever before, and Trump is a tremendous threat to the continuation of the administrative state’s status quo. 

The primary problem for Ed Gillespie wasn’t that Trump is president and is driving Republican-leaning voters away. As the data show, more people voted Republican this time around than in the past. The 2017 Virginia election was mostly about two things: big government Democrats in the northern part of the state have moved in at breakneck speed, and those voters are more petrified than ever that government could be scaled back in the coming years.

This is not say, however, that Republicans are off the hook. As countless polls show, Americans are incredibly frustrated with Republicans’ failure to pass key pieces of legislation despite having control of both houses of Congress and the White House. If Republicans fail to achieve the important reforms they have long been calling for, especially tax reform, their chances in 2018 will be grim, at best.

Justin Haskins is executive editor and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based nonprofit that advocates for limited government.