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Housing crisis tests loyalty to GOP

November 06, 2007|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

STERLING, VA. — Every afternoon, when Karla Schroeder walks her two boys home from school, she takes note of the new real estate signs springing up on neighborhood lawns. These days, they're not what she's used to seeing, and she's not happy about the change.

Along with a great many "For Sale" signs are new ones that say "Foreclosure." A few weeks ago, she was startled by a bright orange sign that said "Auction."

The national downturn in the housing market has arrived in Loudoun County, a once-largely rural area on the western fringes of Washington that has become one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States. In addition to the economic effect, it's stirring anxiety and discontent that have begun to change the climate in which people consider politics -- especially some Republicans.

"I used to consider myself a Republican, but now I consider myself an independent," Schroeder said.

The shift is not confined to one county in the mid-Atlantic region. Similar rumblings of discontent can be heard among GOP voters in fast-growing areas across the country that are being hit by the housing crunch, including parts of Florida and Nevada.

For Republican strategists, the change is particularly troubling because, as recently as 2004, high-growth exurban areas like Loudoun County were fertile ground for GOP organizers, who rallied conservative volunteers from churches and community groups to turn out new voters. It was primarily in such areas that Republican strategists beat Democrats at their own game -- registration and voter turnout.

In 2004, Loudoun County voted to reelect President Bush by 56%, compared with 44% for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). The nine-member County Board of Supervisors consists of six Republicans, one Democrat and two independents, both of whom are former Republicans.

With local elections scheduled for today, however, the ranks of independents and Democrats appear to be growing. There are as many lawn placards supporting Democrats as Republicans in Schroeder's neighborhood.

The shift away from the GOP is partly the result of more liberal voters moving into the county from Washington and Democratic suburbs. But the housing crisis is also playing a substantial role, eroding the loyalty of some longtime Republicans.

As Schroeder assays today's vote for members of the county board, she says that for the first time in her life, she is considering voting for a Democrat.

And one of the things she's unhappy about is those foreclosure signs and the threat she sees in them to her family's financial security.

"I don't like seeing that," Schroeder said recently. "We think about moving, and I worry about whether we could sell our house."

Scott York, chairman of the county board, reflects the changing political climate. Elected as a Republican in 1995, he left the party in 2003 after clashing with fellow Republicans about how to deal with the area's explosive growth.

"In the past, independents used to break Republican," he said, "but that's not happening so much anymore."

York expects the change to show up in the balloting for supervisors. "The speculation is that you'll probably have a huge change on the board," he said.

Some think the shift in voter sentiment -- here and in other high-growth bastions of Republican strength across the country -- may carry over into next year's presidential campaign.

From 2000 to 2006, the population of Loudoun County rose to 269,000 from 170,000 -- an increase of nearly 60%. That made it the fourth-fastest-growing county in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The median home price was also soaring. In 2005, it hit an all-time high of $506,000.

Now, not only are prices slipping but foreclosure rates are rising. Nationwide, foreclosure filings have about doubled but in high-growth exurbs like Loudoun County, they have escalated far faster.

In 2005, the county recorded 12 deeds of foreclosure. In 2006, that number rose to 139. And in the first nine months of 2007, County Clerk Gary Clemens filed 643 deeds of foreclosure -- a 50-fold increase in two years.

The story is similar in other high-growth regions. The highest-growth county in the U.S. -- Flagler County in Florida, north of Daytona Beach -- has seen its foreclosure rate triple in the last year.

In 10th-ranking Lyon County, Nev., where most residents commute to Reno or Carson City, 132 foreclosure deeds were filed in the first nine months of the year. Last year, 19 were filed.

Charles Lawson, chairman of the Lyon County Democratic Party, says home prices have dropped as much as 30% as commuters struggle with higher gasoline prices and try to move closer to their jobs.

Of those who are staying, he says he has seen a distinct uptick in voters switching registration from Republican to Democrat.

"We have people converting," Lawson said, adding that they often cite miserly spending on roads and schools by the staunchly Republican county government.

"Younger folks with children are really coming around," he said.

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