John Nichols Dalton was born in Emporia, Virginia, on July 11, 1931. The adopted son of Theodore Roosevelt “Ted” Dalton, a Republican Party leader, state senator, and gubernatorial nominee, the younger Dalton became immersed in party politics at an early age. In 1953 he graduated from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and, in 1957, received his law degree from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He then returned to his hometown of Radford to practice law and pursue a political career.
He served as the state Republican Party counsel and treasurer, as well as in other leadership posts, before seeking public office for the first time in 1965. He was elected to the House of Delegates and served there until 1972, when he won a special election for the Virginia Senate. In 1973, he was elected lieutenant governor. He became governor in 1978 after handily defeating his Democratic opponent, former lieutenant governor Henry E. Howell Jr., in an often-bitter contest. Federal judge Ted Dalton, whom the governorship had twice eluded, administered the oath to his son, the sixty-third Virginia chief executive, on January 14, 1978.
Although the Daltons hailed from the western “Mountain and Valley” region, where Republicans tended to be centrist in their political outlook, John Dalton became a leading advocate in the 1970s for a party-building strategy that stressed recruiting conservative converts from the ranks of former Democrats. In this, he was allied closely with Richard D. Obenshain, the Republican state chairman, and with Byrd-Organization Democrats such as former governor. Godwin exited the Democratic Party as its more liberal faction gained control early in the 1970s, and ran for governor again as a Republican in 1973. Dalton joined the Godwin ticket as the candidate for lieutenant governor, and the pairing helped to cement an alliance between the Republican moderates from the west and the conservative former Democrats in the eastern two-thirds of the state. Dalton simultaneously cultivated ties to the state’s moderate-conservative business establishment and projected a youthful, energetic appeal to the state’s fast-growing suburban areas.
Dalton assumed the state’s top office in 1978 and later that year helped John W. Warner gain a razor-thin win in his first bid for the U.S. Senate. With those victories, the once-moribund Virginia Republican Party capped a decade-long statewide winning streak that made it the most successful state party organization—Republican or Democratic—in the country at the time. Along with Obenshain and Godwin, Dalton was widely credited for the success.
Dalton’s gubernatorial tenure was characterized by bipartisan consensus and few crises or major policy initiatives. He emphasized transportation and education improvements consistent with the state’s fiscally conservative traditions and restrained the growth of the state government workforce. He devoted much of this time and energy as governor to diversifying and accelerating Virginia’s economic development. He also stressed greater inclusiveness in state government, and his appointment of Dr. Jean Harris as secretary of human resources in 1978 brought the first woman and the first African American to a Virginia governor’s cabinet.
After leaving office, Dalton joined McGuireWoods, a law firm based in Richmond, and remained influential in political affairs. He actively considered a bid for governor again in the 1980s, but died of lung cancer on July 30, 1986. His widow, Edwina Panzer “Eddy” Dalton, was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1987 and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1989.