Leahy: The Virginia Governor’s Race Needs a Big Idea

The Virginia governor’s race is missing something: a big idea.

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D) says he’s running “because we need to think big and be bold” about Virginia’s future. Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin says what Virginia needs is new leadership “with new ideas and common-sense, businesslike execution.”

Fair enough. But what big ideas has each side thrust into the public eye so far? Nothing that makes the average voter — assuming said voter is even paying attention to who is running for what right now — sit up and take notice.

Yes, the perpetually online and the professionally aggrieved are paying loads of attention to what the other side is doing. But it’s shallow, bush-league stuff — the kind that makes even the low, dishonest 2013 gubernatorial race between McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli II look like a Lincoln-Douglas rematch.

Let’s take a break from that point-scoring nonsense and think about some of the bigger issues confronting the commonwealth.

The major party candidates could begin with a discussion about the quiet but consequential slowdown in Virginia’s population growth. Though Virginia isn’t exactly axle-deep in ditch water, it looks increasingly like it’s in a growth rut.

According to a study from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center, “population growth has slowed significantly across Virginia in recent years, falling below U.S. growth levels to reach the lowest population growth rate since the 1920s.”

People are still moving to Virginia. But more people are leaving, going to places like North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Texas.

The Youngkin campaign has mentioned this data but not focused on it. Both campaigns should talk about it a lot more, because this demographic shift has very real consequences. In an interview with UVA Today, the Weldon Copper Center’s Hamilton Lombard said one item in the data that surprised him was Virginia’s declining birthrate. While it doesn’t affect overall population trends that much, it can’t be ignored, either:

… most elementary schools have had a noticeable decline in their student enrollment. In the next decade, the decline in births is going to be felt in universities and the workforce as the number of Virginians turning 18 enters a long period of decline.

Admittedly, those numbers are in the demographic weeds. For politicians, whose time horizons extend no further than the next election, the long-term implications of fewer young people entering Virginia’s schools and workforce are someone else’s problem.

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