Why secession is the talk of this pro-gun county in Virginia

Why We Wrote This

What does it mean to be Virginian? Unnerved by political turnover, one rural, conservative county is considering leaving the state. The proposal highlights social and political rifts that divide many U.S. states.

Edwin Remsberg / VWPics/AP/File
An urban-rural divide has grown particularly stark in Virginia, as population centers around Washington, D.C., have swelled, tipping the state government toward more liberal values. Seen here, a country pasture in Middleburg, Virginia.

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As in many states, residents in parts of rural, conservative Virginia say they seem to inhabit an increasingly different daily reality than that of urban and suburban districts. That feeling of separation was compounded by last November’s Democratic sweep of the state’s elected offices. Now residents in Frederick County are mulling a radical proposal: seceding from Virginia and joining neighboring West Virginia.

Few Frederickians actually favor a redrawn border. But the proposal speaks to the intensity of social and political polarization.

“I feel a very strong affection toward Virginia,” says Douglas McCarthy, a member of the Frederick County Board of Supervisors. “But because of what’s happening in Richmond and Northern Virginia, it does make me question what options do we have if things continue to go down a road that doesn’t seem to be very Virginian.”

The question of what is Virginian looks different in the northern counties near Washington, D.C., which are becoming younger, more racially diverse, and more liberal than the rest of the state. Northern Virginia “has actually become the defining part of Virginia,” says Qian Cai, a demographer at the University of Virginia.

A drive between Fairfax and Frederick counties is, in Virginia terms, like a trip back in time. As the highway pushes west, parking lots fade into pastures, workspaces into woodlands, suburbs into the vast Shenandoah Valley. Just an hour’s drive apart, the two counties feel like different states.

If West Virginia gets its way, they could be.

West Virginia’s governor and Senate have invited Frederick, a county of about 90,000 on Virginia’s northern border, to switch state lines. The invitation comes as many in the largely conservative county feel disaffected with Virginia’s first Democratic government in decades, elected in part thanks to demographic shifts in the state’s population centers.

Few Frederickians actually favor a redrawn border, but the proposal speaks to the intensity of Virginia’s current polarization. As in many states experiencing rapid urban and suburban growth, residents in parts of rural, conservative Virginia seem to inhabit an increasingly different daily reality. 

Amid fiercely partisan debates over abortion and gun control in Virginia’s capital of Richmond, some now wonder whether those two realities are reconcilable – or if the gap in political identities has grown too far to bridge.

“I feel a very strong affection toward Virginia,” says Douglas McCarthy, a member of the Frederick County Board of Supervisors and a lifelong county resident. “But because of what’s happening in Richmond and Northern Virginia, it does make me question what options do we have if things continue to go down a road that doesn’t seem to be very Virginian.”

Many, though, are now asking what “Virginian” even means, or who gets to decide.

A demographic wave

In northern Virginia, colloquially known as NoVa, demographics have been changing for decades, as people moved there for work in Washington. In the 2010s, says Qian Cai, director of the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, two-thirds of Virginia’s population growth happened in the region. By 2040 it’s projected to contain half of the state’s population.

Those moving into the area are likely to be younger, more racially diverse, and more liberal than people in the rest of the state, she says. This younger, more cosmopolitan Virginia represents a growing power base and is the reason why Democrats now have complete control over state government for the first time in 26 years.

“It’s increasingly harder to say NoVa is not Virginia,” says Ms. Cai. “NoVa has actually become the defining part of Virginia.”

Meanwhile rural areas such as Frederick, which make up most of the state’s territory, have remained mostly the same – as have their conservative values. In part, this discontinuity has left people like Mr. McCarthy feeling left behind, particularly as state lawmakers take up progressive causes. And the recent invitation from West Virginia to switch states, effectively to move the state line created in 1863 when West Virginia seceded from the Confederacy, is not the only aspirational rebordering plan in the cards.

Chris Jackson/AP
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice shakes hands with West Virginia legislators during the State of the State address in the House Chambers at the state capitol, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, West Virginia.

Joining the West Virginia governor, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a prominent conservative voice in the state and nationally, has supported a state-switching referendum in his university’s home of Lynchburg – around 100 miles from the border – and elsewhere in rural Virginia. 

State Delegate David LaRock, a Republican who represents part of Frederick County, even proposed returning the populous cities of Alexandria and Arlington, which joined Virginia in the 1840s because of their support for slavery, back to Washington D.C. 

The proposal, says Mr. LaRock, was meant to open a conversation about the state’s polarization rather than an attempt to give away two prosperous locales. 

Part of what has attracted particular attention to Frederick County’s invitation, says Mr. LaRock, is the legal framework already in place for such a change. During the Civil War, three neighboring Virginia counties – Berkeley, Jefferson, and Frederick – were invited by the newly created West Virginia to rejoin the Union. While Frederick never acted on their invitation, the first two counties voted to leave. Their referendums were later upheld by a 1871 Supreme Court decision, providing a precedent for Frederick to follow suit.

The ad hoc creation of West Virginia’s border has left many deeply rooted families, such as Mr. McCarthy’s, which straddles both sides, with the impression that state lines are somewhat artificial. 

“The eastern panhandle of West Virginia is not different from Virginia,” he says.

Gun rights in legislative crosshairs

Mr. McCarthy doesn’t yet support secession, but he says he and many of his constituents want to keep their options open. The changes coming out of Richmond, to him, are much more real than a border he crosses without thought nearly every week. 

Most Frederickians aren’t interested in flipping state lines – especially given West Virginia’s worse economy. Many in Virginia also look down on its poorer neighbor. But to Blaine Dunn, another member of the county’s Board of Supervisors, the proposals show how high the political stakes have become, particularly when it comes to gun ownership.

Rural Virginia maintains a culture of “arms and farms,” he says. To limit people’s right to carry is in his opinion a threat to constitutional freedoms, and, even more, an entire way of life. 

“If one side thinks that they are now going to be made felons of, that’s more than losing,” he says. 

Mr. Dunn attended the Jan. 20 rally in Richmond, when more than 22,000 activists demonstrated their support for gun rights. People came from as far as Minnesota, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and New York to support, as they said, their “brothers and sisters” in Virginia.  

The people he met there, Mr. Dunn says, understand his lifestyle much better than Virginia-born legislators in Richmond. “What the governor and the General Assembly are trying to do is something that radically affects people’s lives, yet they themselves are exempt from it,” says Mr. Dunn, referring to politicians such as the governor who rely on police protection for self-defense.

Gun-control legislation, meanwhile, continues to progress through the General Assembly. The House of Delegates on Jan. 30 passed a series of bills that would require universal background checks and create a “red flag” provision to temporarily remove weapons from residents considered dangerous. 

Mr. McCarthy, Mr. LaRock, and Mr. Dunn all say they feel a responsibility to get along with citizens in the rest of the state, but they also believe that Richmond has crossed a line. Frederick County was once the stage for many Civil War battles. It has a precedent for self-determination and a willingness to fight over identity.

Virginia, says Mr. McCarthy, is an idea. Like any idea, it’s malleable. 

“As other people move into Virginia and they craft Virginia to be what they want it to be, at the same time, there are other people in Virginia that want something different,” he says. 

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