Voters are heading to the polls in Va. to choose between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

HERNDON, Va. -- Some of the old-timers who came out to vote Tuesday in this suburb near Dulles International Airport can remember a time when a social conservative like the state GOP’s gubernatorial nominee would have dominated election returns here.

Herndon was a sleepy burg full of dairy farms then. Its main link with Washington, D.C., was a train stopping to pick up a milk shipment on its way to Union Station.

The area has since boomed into an appendage of Washington with a population exceeding 24,000, and the massive demographic changes it has gone through in the process reflect one of the biggest headaches for Republicans nationwide.

 Herndon is a battleground within it. An influx of minorities, immigrants and government workers has turned the area from Republican red to purple. The GOP incumbent representing the city in the state Assembly is hoping to hang onto his seat with a campaign that focuses on his many collaborations with Democrats.

PHOTOS: Election Day 2013

The area, though, is hardly a liberal bastion. Many of the voters who came out to a local community center to cast their ballots for Democrat Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday said their decision was driven less by support for the candidate than opposition for Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican running against him. Cuccinelli, a social conservative and tea party favorite, is a climate skeptic, an unrelenting opponent of abortion rights and a crusader against Obamacare.

“I was more excited to vote against Cuccinelli than for McAuliffe,” said Lauren Durden, a 41-year-old homemaker. “Cuccinelli is way too socially conservative. He is an extremist.”

Fahmida Hossain, 33, also a homemaker, said she is troubled by Cuccinelli’s focus on tanking Obamacare. “If that is your main agenda, and your point for going to office, you shouldn’t be in office,” she said.

Establishment Republicans say Cuccinelli’s tea party affiliation is the reason polls have consistently shown him on track to lose against a weak Democratic opponent. They argue that the GOP is failing to field candidates who appeal to the state’s new electorate. And as more of the country undergoes the kind of population shifts Herndon is experiencing, these Republicans warn, the GOP brand will suffer.

Many of the state’s GOP voters, however, are not persuaded. Several interviewed in Herndon Tuesday said they want to see more social conservatives like Cuccinelli on the ballot.

“We’ve got a lot of people telling us how to think,” said Paul Busch, 58, who owns a small pet-care business. “They are telling us if we want to put a person in the White House, we have to do this or that, and be in the middle. … We don’t need more squishy Republicans.”

Harold Boosahda, a 61-year-old salesman, said he, too, wants to see more GOP nominees like Cuccinelli, people who “want to take back the government and not have these lackey and lapdog Republicans in there.”

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evan.halper@latimes.com

Twitter: @evanhalper