MANASSAS, Va. — Kumar Iyer whipped out his smartphone the other day to eagerly show a photo of himself with Ralph S. Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor. He was thrilled to meet him, he said, and excited to vote for him.
At least he is now.
Mr. Iyer, a restaurant owner who came to the United States from India in 1999 and became a citizen 10 years later, was chagrined to admit that until he catered a party to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, that Mr. Northam attended, he might not have known that Nov. 7 was Election Day.
In the past decade, expansive growth has added hundreds of thousands of new residents to the region just outside Washington, making some Northern Virginia counties the fastest growing in the state and the wealthiest in the nation. Among those newcomers are a broad spectrum of Latinos, Arabs and South Asians like Mr. Iyer who are a major reason for Virginia’s steady march toward the Democratic Party.
But with a week and a half to go in the campaign, lack of engagement from the brimming immigrant population here represents a key challenge for Mr. Northam, the lieutenant governor, in his race against Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and a source of worry for his supporters.
Mr. Northam, who is from the southern part of the state, is not well known in the vote-rich Washington suburbs, and even some Democrats have said the campaign has failed to generate excitement.
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“It still feels a little quiet for a gubernatorial race,” said Senator Mark Warner, the state’s senior Democrat.
But the stakes in Virginia for Democrats nationally are high. The party has failed to win any significant races since President Trump’s election, and the fundamentals are weighted in their favor in Virginia, where the president is deeply unpopular and the last time a Republican won a statewide top-of-ballot race was in 2009, when Bob McDonnell’s election as governor presaged Republican gains nationally the following year.
Outside the Washington suburbs, Republicans dominate vast swaths of the state, mainly in areas where the population and economy are flat or declining. The political divide mirrors a fractious cultural one that has played out in fights throughout the state over whether to remove Confederate monuments, ban sanctuary cities or round up immigrants in the country illegally. If the core constituency that helped Democrats carry the state in the last three presidential elections does not turn out, it will be that Republican Virginia that prevails.
“It’s really not old vs. new,” said David Ramadan, a Republican who served in the state legislature representing the region. “It’s NOVA vs. ROVA, Northern Virginia vs. the Rest of Virginia.”
With its thriving technology sector and data centers that sprout up like the crops that preceded them on one-time farmland, Northern Virginia is the economic engine of the state, attracting a diverse, highly skilled and well-paid work force, many of them immigrants.
“The three major metropolitan areas in the state (Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads) contain more than 90 percent of the total growth,” Qian Cai, director of demographic research at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, said in an email. She also noted that “between 2010 and 2016, 45 of Virginia’s 95 counties witnessed population decline.”
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Virginia’s immigrant population grew four times as fast as its native-born population from 2007 to 2015, according to the nonprofit Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, bringing its numbers to about one in eight Virginians. And more than two-thirds of the state’s immigrants live in Northern Virginia.
In Loudoun County, several elementary schools are majority South Asian. The area is also home to one of the largest mosques on the East Coast. Vietnamese and Korean immigrants have long been a presence. And, as in other places across the country, the number of Latinos moving into the area is growing rapidly as well.
Many of these immigrants, who tend to be socially and fiscally conservative, are not naturally Democrats. But Mr. Ramadan and others said Republicans’ harsh approach to immigration has driven them to be Democrats, and it may be difficult to get them back.
“They are people of faith. They came here for less government. They are natural voters for the Republican Party,” Mr. Ramadan said. “But they are also emotional voters. They want to feel accepted. They want to feel welcome, but the Republican Party has failed to do so. Democrats have done a much better job.”
Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who represented Northern Virginia, said he saw the transformation happening “under my feet.”
“We are losing ethnic voters en masse,” Mr. Davis said. “Vietnamese, Koreans used to be the backbone of my vote. They are very Republican in the way they live their lives, but I saw the immigration issue just turn it south.”
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In a presidential election year, Democrats have been able to rack up large majorities in the counties near Washington. But turnout drops substantially in off-year cycles, and Republicans can capitalize on a more loyal core of voters.
Turnout among immigrants is not the only concern for the Northam campaign. He will need another crucial part of the Democratic coalition: African-American voters in Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Hampton Roads area. Mr. Northam has been trying to stoke energy in urban areas, and former President Barack Obama recently appeared with him at a rally in Richmond.
“I think the big question for me on the election is: Can Lieutenant Governor Northam excite the traditional Democratic voting base in Northern Virginia and the urban centers,” said Bill Bolling, a Republican former lieutenant governor.
That explains why both Mr. Gillespie, who as a national party leader tried to reach out to minority voters, and Mr. Northam, who some Republicans once wanted to try to recruit to switch parties, have been running campaigns aimed at base voters, with Mr. Gillespie emphasizing crimes by illegal immigrants and pledging to oppose sanctuary cities — even though Virginia does not have any — and Mr. Northam trying to yoke his opponent to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Ramadan said he ran as a conservative and won a district that was 60 percent Democratic in his state delegate race from a Loudoun County district.
“I have been telling my party until there is no breath left in me, you truly need to widen the tent and not just talk about it,” Mr. Ramadan said. “And start working the new voters of Virginia and not the old voters that are shrinking in Southwest. The future is Northern Virginia. The future is the Asian vote. The future is the Latino vote.”
CreditPete Marovich for The New York Times
Mr. Warner’s career has tracked the tensions between old and new. He was elected governor in 2001, largely by mitigating losses in rural areas by devoting large amounts of time to campaigning there.
It worked for him then, and again in 2008 when he won his first term in the Senate. Even as the state’s voting population was changing, though, he barely defeated Mr. Gillespie in 2014 to keep his Senate race, losing even rural areas where he had been popular. The new voters in Northern Virginia did not turn out, and the rural voters Mr. Warner had courted spurned him.
It is an open question now whether it is even worth a Democrat’s time to try to win those rural areas, given the possible yield to be had by campaigning more vigorously in Northern Virginia. But the transition from old to new Virginia is still evolving.
From her fifth-floor office, Phyllis J. Randall, a Democrat and the first African-American woman to lead a Virginia county board of supervisors, can look down on the courthouse square in Leesburg, the Loudoun County seat. Just beyond her view is a monument to Confederate soldiers that has been the subject of heated protests.
She favors moving the monument but said older members of her board and community disagreed.
“It is so generational,” she said. “People 35 and younger grew up in a more multicultural area, so I think there are times when younger people have a lesson to give older people.”
In Manassas, where Mr. Iyer’s restaurant does brisk lunch business, schools and car dealerships incorporate the word “battlefield,” a reflection that the area’s tourism economy thrives in part by celebrating both sides of Civil War heritage. And yet, at the Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center shopping mall on a recent morning, the majority of morning customers at Starbucks and the Apple store were minorities.
Mr. Trump’s turbulent first nine months as president will also affect the outcome. Many of his policies will excite the voters in rural areas. Mr. Trump has backed Mr. Gillespie via Twitter, though so far he has not campaigned with him.
Mr. Northam’s hopes rest in part on the votes of people like Mr. Iyer.
“When I had a choice I feel that the Democratic Party views are more inclusive, more tolerant, more favoring,” he said. “Republicans want to keep it for Americans. America is a great country, but these foreign nationals relate more to a feeling of being included.”