Democratic Party of Virginia


The Democratic Party, the dominant political party in Virginia from the 1880s to the 1960s, can trace its origins to the early years of the republic, when disputes over domestic and foreign policies gave birth to the Republican (Democratic-Republican) and Federalist parties. In the 1830s, while Andrew Jackson was president, the name “Democratic” began to gain currency among his supporters. Opposition to Jackson’s policies resulted in the formation of a party known as the Whigs. Two-party competition continued in the Old Dominion until the eve of the American Civil War (1861–1865). During Reconstruction (1865–1877), Congress mandated the enfranchisement of black males. Former Democrats and Whigs established the Conservative Party. After Reconstruction, the Conservatives triumphed, but soon they lost power to an interracial coalition known as the Readjusters. In 1883 the Conservative Party changed its name to the Democratic Party. They regained control of the General Assembly that same year, and the governorship two years later. Their control solidified by the suffrage provisions of the Virginia Constitution of 1902, the Democrats were immune to challenge in statewide elections for decades—the only meaningful competition was in the Democratic primary. Early in the twentieth century, party leader Thomas S. Martin and later Harry F. Byrd Sr. developed political organizations based on the support of local officials across the state, but by the 1960s the Byrd Organization was in decline: changes in federal civil rights laws, federal court decisions, the arrival of many newcomers in the state, the rise of the modern Republican Party, and the passing of the old generation of Democratic leaders initiated a party realignment. In the 1970s Virginia’s political parties were philosophically more in tune with their respective national parties. Since then, two-party competition has characterized Virginia politics. Virginia Democrats made history by electing an African American as governor in 1989 and giving the state’s electoral vote to Barack Obama, the first African American to be the candidate of a major party for president, in 2008.

Early Party Formation

Battle of New Orleans

Disputes over the powers granted to the new federal government under the U.S. Constitution as well as divisions over foreign policy led to the rise of political parties in the 1790s. Opponents of the federal government in Congress, led by James Madison, were known as “the republican interest.” Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, were the authors of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798–1799), which proposed state action to resist federal laws. Formation of the Republican (or Democratic-Republican) Party on the state level lagged until 1800, when the General Assembly passed the general-ticket law that ensured that Jefferson would receive all of the state’s electoral votes. The Republicans then created a General Standing Committee to direct the campaign and correspond with county committees across the state. Virginia’s Republicans maintained their dominance throughout the presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. To maintain party unity and continuity, a State Central Committee of Correspondence worked with local Republican elites. The leadership group known as the Richmond Junto used Thomas Ritchie‘s newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, as its editorial voice. Judge Spencer Roane of the Virginia Court of Appeals articulated the junto’s states’-rights, strict constructionist philosophy that echoed the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in protest against the nationalistic rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. The presidential election of 1824 marked the end of the so-called Virginia Dynasty. Virginia’s voters turned to Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans (1815).

The Antebellum Period

Grand Rally of the Whigs of Augusta

During the 1830s the Virginia Republican Party changed its name, but not its commitment to states’ rights, strict construction, and preserving the institution of slavery. Politics in Virginia was still mainly the affair of elites, as only about one-third of adult white males participated in presidential elections. By mid-decade Jackson’s supporters were calling themselves Democrats. Jackson’s second term brought unprecedented upheaval to Virginia politics. His veto of the bill to re-charter the Second Bank of the United States angered many Virginians, as some regarded his subsequent diversion of federal revenues to state banks as an abuse of power. Jackson’s opponents formed a broad coalition and adopted the name “Whigs.” Two-party competition returned to the Old Dominion as Democrats and Whigs vied for supremacy for more than two decades. The influence of the junto having declined by the 1840s, younger men, disciples of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, seized control of the Virginia Democratic Party. Advocates of the expansion of slavery and the defense of southern rights, they would lead Virginia toward secession.

Virginia belatedly democratized its political system as the Reform Convention wrote a new constitution in 1850–1851. Universal white male suffrage and the popular election of the governor produced new leaders such as Democrat Joseph Johnson, Virginia’s first popularly elected governor (served 1852–1856). The planter elite adapted to the new situation and continued to dominate Virginia politics. Shared views on race, slavery, and states’ rights served to unite the new political leaders with the traditional ones.

Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law

After the Mexican War (1846–1848), Virginia’s Democrats eagerly embraced the idea of expanding slavery into the newly acquired territories, while the Whigs took a more equivocal and less politically popular position. Virginia Democrats found little to praise in the Compromise of 1850 except the Fugitive Slave Act, which ordered that escaped slaves be returned to their masters. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which repealed the Missouri Compromise, was popular with Virginians in Congress, but the law brought a political revolution on the national level. One of its effects was to destroy the Whig Party nationally. In Virginia, however, the Whigs lingered and played a major role in the years prior to secession. As sectional tensions intensified after John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry and the election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, many Virginia Democrats advocated secession (Whigs generally displayed stronger attachment to the Union). In April 1861, however, after Lincoln called for troops to help suppress the rebellion at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Democrats and Whigs in all regions of the state except the northwest united to support secession.

Reconstruction, Redemption, and Readjustment

William Mahone

The Civil War brought defeat and devastation to Virginia. In 1867 Congress brushed aside the lenient Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson and passed legislation that placed former Confederate states under military administration (designating Virginia Military District Number One) and enfranchised black males. Virginia Republicans, black and white, drafted a new constitution. The mobilization of black voters provoked a political revival among former Democrats and Whigs, who founded the Conservative Party. After moderate and radical Republicans split, the former established an electoral coalition with the Conservatives in 1869. The coalition’s victory redeemed Virginia from radical Republican rule. The Conservatives soon divided over repayment of the state’s prewar debt. The Readjusters, an interracial coalition led by the former Confederate general William Mahone, briefly gained power and enacted a new debt settlement. Conservatives, however, were not idle. Reenergized, well financed, and ably led, they set about to redeem political control of Virginia under the banner of a reborn Democratic Party.

Democratic Dominance

For Governor of Virginia Gen. Fitz Lee.

In 1883 the Conservative Party changed its name to the Democratic Party and laid the foundation for long-term domination of Virginia’s government. The Democrats’ new leader, John S. Barbour, organized the party down to the precinct level. Party members used racial appeals as their principal campaign tactic, accusing the Readjusters of threatening white supremacy by including African Americans in their coalition and offering them patronage. Three days before the election, a racial incident led to the Danville Riot, which the Democrats exploited as the logical outcome of coalition politics and precursor of a race war. The Democrats won control of the General Assembly, which passed legislation that gave them exclusive control of the state’s election machinery. In 1885 they elected Robert E. Lee‘s nephew Fitzhugh Lee governor. Thus began the long era of Democratic domination. Democrats would elect every governor until 1969, every senator from Virginia until 1970, and maintain control of the General Assembly until 1999.

Thomas Staples Martin

After Barbour’s death in 1892, Thomas Staples Martin, counsel for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, became the party’s leader. He had gained influence by supplying railroad money to sympathetic Democratic candidates for the assembly; they in turn selected him over the popular Lee to succeed Barbour in the U.S. Senate. Martin, a self-assured and quiet leader as well as an excellent organizer, built a political machine on the foundations left by Barbour. Martin was a conservative, but was keenly attuned to the popular will.

Martin had to deal with discontent within the ranks of his own party. Independent Democrats resented the assembly’s selection of the little-known Martin over the popular Lee. They proposed a party primary to determine senatorial nominees. Legislative Democrats would be honor-bound to elect the winner of the primary. The Independents, also known as progressives, were interested in improving state services, especially schools, roads, and public health. They were troubled by accusations against the Martin Organization of electoral fraud. In 1901 they supported attorney general Andrew Jackson Montague for governor, who defeated the Organization’s choice, congressman Claude A. Swanson. As governor, Montague was a voice for reform, but his accomplishments were modest. The struggle for control of the party between the Independents and the Martin Organization reached its climax during his term.

The Independents urged a constitutional convention. The principal motive was to disfranchise African Americans, which would supposedly diminish electoral corruption and reduce the influence of the Organization. The Organization’s leaders, however, correctly perceived that a new constitution would not endanger their control. The Constitution of 1902 shaped the political culture of the Old Dominion for the next sixty years. With mechanisms such as the poll tax and literacy test, it not only eliminated African Americans as a factor in politics, but it also removed poor whites as well. The resulting smaller electorate was easier to control. Republicans retained significant strength only in the Ninth Congressional District in southwest Virginia.

In the new political environment the Martin Organization no longer objected to a party primary as the means of selecting Democratic nominees. In 1905 Montague challenged Martin in the first senatorial primary. Espousing progressive ideas and campaigning vigorously, Martin successfully appealed to the restricted electorate. In the gubernatorial primary, Claude Swanson triumphed, and, working with a cooperative General Assembly, proceeded to enact many of the reforms proposed by Montague. In 1912 a new law codified the primary’s status and allowed the party to restrict participation to whites.

Virginia Anti-Saloon League

The Martin Organization soon faced a new challenge: Prohibition. The Virginia branch of the Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1901. Supported by evangelical Christian denominations, the league was especially influential in rural areas and small towns. The Reverend James Cannon Jr., a Methodist minister and founding member of the league, relentlessly pressured Organization leaders to secure passage of the necessary legislation. Although Senator Martin had received financial support from the liquor interests, he was keenly aware of popular support for Prohibition, and the Organization fell in line.

The Byrd Organization

Harry Flood Byrd Sr.

Martin’s death in 1919 raised fundamental questions about the future of his political organization. His lieutenant, Congressman Henry (“Hal”) Flood, died after managing the successful campaign of E. Lee Trinkle in 1921. The party then turned to a younger man, Flood’s nephew Harry F. Byrd, to serve as state chairman. Byrd did not immediately assume Martin’s role, but gradually he earned the respect and loyalty of members of the Organization. Like Martin, he managed his power by enforcing loyalty among the courthouse officials who ran local party business. Byrd quickly established his reputation as party leader by his role in the “redemption” of the Ninth District congressional seat, which had been held by Republicans since 1903. He also led supporters of the pay-as-you-go fiscal policy to victory in a statewide road bonds referendum in 1923. Two years later, at age thirty-eight, Byrd won the governorship. As governor, his innovative administration captured national attention.

The 1928 presidential election presented problems for Byrd. He and other Organization leaders supported Governor Al Smith of New York, an action that divided Virginia’s Democrats and threatened the political machine’s control. Smith was objectionable to many Virginians because he was a Roman Catholic and opposed Prohibition. Cannon, by that time a Methodist bishop, called upon Virginians to desert the Democratic Party and support Republican Herbert Hoover. Hoover carried the state by 25,000 votes and Republicans were elected in three congressional districts. Thousands of Democrats had abandoned their party; party leaders could only hope they would return in the gubernatorial election the following year.

Governor John Garland Pollard

Byrd selected John Garland Pollard, a prominent Baptist and an ardent supporter of Prohibition, as the Democratic gubernatorial candidate most likely to lure the “Hoovercrats” back to the party. Cannon sought to punish the Democratic leaders by forming a coalition of “anti-Smith” Democrats and Republicans. The effort failed miserably as Pollard won a landslide victory. Pollard subsequently appointed Byrd to the U.S. Senate when Claude Swanson became secretary of the navy. Byrd’s loyalty to the national party, however, had its limits. A conservative, Byrd opposed the vast expansion of federal power and deficit spending under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Virginian provided no public support to any Democratic presidential candidate after 1936. His stance became known as “golden silence.”

The Byrd Organization reigned supreme in Virginia politics until the post–World War II period. Its oligarchic rule provided straightforward, frugal government and a low level of public services. The restricted electorate and one-party rule made Virginia the least democratic state in the nation. The minority of Virginians who did vote cast their ballots for Roosevelt, but also for senators Byrd and Glass, two of his leading critics. Virginians liked many New Deal programs, but were responsive to the senators’ warnings against excessive spending and Roosevelt’s grasps for power, such as the scheme to pack the Supreme Court with additional liberal justices.

Campaign Poster

The Organization faced challenges from within and outside its ranks during the decade after World War II. There was growing discontent with the closed political system as well as the state’s parsimony in funding services. Governor William M. Tuck secured tax increases to fund improvements in education, public health, and other state services, but Virginia continued to rank low nationally in these areas. In 1948 the anti-Byrd faction spearheaded the effort to carry Virginia for President Harry S. Truman. Energized by their success, they had high hopes of electing Francis Pickens Miller governor in 1949 in the Democratic primary—but the Organization mobilized and provided state senator John Battle a plurality of the vote. Battle made public education a priority, but younger members of the General Assembly were not satisfied. Largely veterans of World War II, these “Young Turks” fought for higher appropriations. They could have provided the next generation of Organization leaders, but they were punished for their independence.

A rejuvenated Republican Party presented yet another threat to the Organization. In 1952 Virginians joined millions of other Americans in their enthusiasm for presidential candidate and war hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republicans also elected three members of the House of Representatives. The next year the Republicans, capitalizing on their newfound success, made an all-out effort to win the governorship behind the candidacy of state senator Theodore R. Dalton. Dalton’s progressive platform and aggressive campaign attracted many supporters. The Organization chose Congressman Thomas B. Stanley, who seemed to be no match for the articulate Dalton. The Republican blundered, however, by endorsing road bonds late in the campaign. Senator Byrd became fully engaged, and his active involvement helped propel Stanley to victory. But the Organization knew it had been a close call.

Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. Makes a Televised Speech

The beleaguered Byrd Organization received a new lease on life in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated the end of racial segregation in public schools. Initially, Governor Stanley reacted calmly, but Senator Byrd immediately denounced the decision. Rejecting a local-option approach, which would have permitted some desegregation, Byrd called for “massive resistance.” To please Southside whites, Byrd and Stanley secured legislation that mandated the closing of any school under court order to desegregate. Democrats were by no means of one mind on the question, as thirty-nine members of the House and seventeen members of the Senate supported the local-option approach. In 1958 Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closed schools in three localities. Several months later the Massive Resistance laws were struck down by both the state Supreme Court of Appeals and the federal court. Almond then angered Byrd and his closest allies in the assembly by abandoning Massive Resistance in favor of the local option approach.

Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. and President Johnson

The power of the Byrd Organization declined in the 1960s and a number of forces converged to bring about a change of course for Virginia’s Democratic Party. Demographic changes undermined the Organization’s rural base. Industrial development and the growing federal government produced urban and suburban growth and the resulting demand for more public services. In 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Virginia’s legislative reapportionment of 1962. In another case, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals struck down congressional redistricting legislation. These decisions had profound implications for the Organization. Another blow was the disappearance of the poll tax, the principal device used to keep Virginia’s electorate small. The Twenty-fourth Amendment removed the poll tax in federal elections, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in state elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited the use of literacy tests in voter registration. Combined with increased political activism in the African American community, these changes had an extraordinary electoral impact. Their significance, however, was not lost on some members of the Organization. In 1964 the Democratic State Convention passed a resolution endorsing the reelection of President Lyndon B. Johnson, much to the displeasure of Senator Byrd. Johnson had supported major civil rights legislation and a significant expansion of the federal government. The president carried Virginia by 76,704 votes. It was estimated that almost 160,000 African Americans cast ballots; their support for Johnson was almost unanimous.

Inauguration of Governor Mills E. Godwin

Change came quickly to Virginia politics. Senator Byrd resigned from the Senate due to ill health in 1965 and died the next year. His son Harry F. Byrd Jr. succeeded him. Lieutenant Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr., a Byrd loyalist, ran for governor in 1965. Keenly aware of the changing political environment, he addressed the state’s needs and attempted to distance himself from his reputation as an advocate for Massive Resistance in the 1950s. During the presidential campaign he had joined Lady Bird Johnson on her campaign train and endorsed her husband. This action enraged die-hard segregationists, who founded the Conservative Party and nominated their own candidate for governor, William J. Story Jr. The Republicans presented an attractive, energetic candidate, the ideologically moderate A. Linwood Holton. Godwin’s platform emphasized increased aid for public education at all levels, aggressive efforts to attract new industries and increase tourism, and programs to protect the environment. Despite adopting an appealing platform and assembling a broad coalition of supporters, Godwin failed to gain a majority of the vote. He outpolled Holton by ten points, but Story, the Conservative Party candidate, garnered a surprising 13.4 percent.

Representative A. Willis Robertson

The year 1966 revealed how much the Virginia political scene had been transformed. Former Young Turks Armistead Boothe and William B. Spong, respectively, challenged senators Harry Byrd Jr. and A. Willis Robertson in the Democratic primary. Spong narrowly defeated Robertson while Byrd won by fewer than 9,000 votes. In northern Virginia a liberal Democrat, George C. Rawlings Jr., defeated Howard W. Smith, one of titans of the Organization and chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. The Conservative Party’s admonition to its members to refrain from voting in the Democratic primary contributed to the defeat of both men. Realizing that the Democratic primary was no longer a hospitable environment for conservatives, Byrd sought reelection as an Independent in 1970. As conservative, moderate, and liberal factions clashed for control of the Democratic Party, Virginia Republicans savored the opportunity that Democratic division presented.

Realignment, Two-Party Competition, and a Changing Virginia

Inauguration of Governor A. Linwood Holton Jr

The year 1969 witnessed the demise of the Byrd Organization, the election of the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, and the beginning of party realignment. Candidates loyal to the Organization were defeated for all three state offices in the Democratic primaries. Neither moderate William C. Battle nor liberal-populist state senator Henry E. Howell Jr. received a majority in the first gubernatorial primary. Howell, a harsh critic of the utility companies and the insurance industry, was anathema to Godwin, who intervened in the run-off primary to support Battle. Howell and his supporters were outraged. Battle defeated Howell, but, financially drained by two campaigns and leading a badly divided party, he was no match for the well-financed Holton. In an effort to bury the remnants of the Organization many blacks and even organized labor joined the Holton coalition. The Republican won by a convincing 65,000-vote margin. The Democrats, however, managed to retain the other statewide offices and keep their iron grip on the General Assembly.

The years 1972 and 1973 were critical for party realignment as both Virginia parties moved into closer conformity with their national counterparts. In 1972 Republicans chose Richard D. Obenshain, a committed conservative, as party chairman. Obenshain’s principal objective was to woo Byrd Democrats into the Republican Party. Virginia Democrats complied with national party mandates for more representation at party conventions for minorities and women. The new party leadership consisted of allies of Henry Howell and supporters of presidential candidate George S. McGovern. After McGovern’s landslide defeat, however, Howell decided to run for governor as an Independent. Because his core supporters were overwhelmingly Democrats, the party for the first time made no gubernatorial nomination. Mills Godwin needed little persuading to oppose Howell, but only the likelihood of a three-way race convinced him to abandon thoughts of an Independent candidacy and run as a Republican. A late blitz of negative advertising along with blunders by Howell gave Godwin a narrow victory. Democrat Andrew P. Miller was reelected overwhelmingly as attorney general. The Democrats increased their strength in the House of Delegates as the unfolding Watergate scandal stalled party realignment.

John N. Dalton

Factional division continued to weaken the Democrats in 1977. Andrew Miller seemed poised to make a strong run for governor, but first he had to defeat Henry Howell in the Democratic primary. Aided by organized labor and black political organizations, Howell was also the beneficiary of Governor Godwin’s plea that conservative and moderate voters stay out of the Democratic primary. Turnout was low except in the cities that were the key to Howell’s upset victory. Miller tried to resurrect his political career the following year by running for a seat in the U.S. Senate, but lost to Republican John W. Warner by just 4,700 votes. In the 1977 general election, the conservative establishment mobilized against Howell, who hurt his own cause by making unfounded conflict-of-interest charges against his Republican opponent, John N. Dalton. Governor Godwin took to the stump, relishing a last chance to vanquish his old adversary. Dalton defeated Howell by 158,000 votes. One bright spot for the Democrats, however, was the election of Charles S. Robb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and son-in-law of former president Lyndon B. Johnson, as lieutenant governor. Robb’s election demonstrated that an attractive centrist Democrat could negate the Republicans’ appeal in the suburbs. Eager to put the divisive politics of the Howell era behind them, Democratic strategists saw important lessons in Robb’s victory.

A new approach, stronger candidates, well-funded campaigns, and internal divisions in the Republican Party made the 1980s a triumphant decade for Virginia’s Democrats. While serving as lieutenant governor, Robb persuaded former senator Spong to chair a commission to assess the state of the party. One recommended change was to choose nominees by convention rather than by divisive and costly primaries. Another was new party leadership: Mayor Richard Davis of Portsmouth replaced Howell’s ally Joseph Fitzpatrick as party chairman. When Republicans won nine of ten seats in the House of Representatives in 1980, it appeared that party realignment had produced Republican dominance in the Old Dominion, but that was an illusion—factional divisions in the Republican Party had been apparent throughout the 1970s, and the growing participation of evangelical Christians early in the 1980s increased tensions. The death of Richard Obenshain in 1978 removed the one leader who might have been able to unify the party. In addition, conservative Byrd Democrats, with their ample financial resources, had not fully committed to the Republican Party. Robb, who stressed fiscal restraint, was quite successful in persuading many of them to return to the Democratic fold.

Charles S. Robb and Family

Fiscally conservative and moderate to liberal on social issues, the new Democrats projected an image of competence. Their stands on the issues proved especially appealing to suburban voters. For the most part, the 1980s was a prosperous decade: Virginia benefited from the Reagan administration’s defense buildup, and growing state revenues made it possible for Robb and his successor, Gerald L. Baliles, to increase spending on education, transportation, and other state services. Both governors addressed the issue of diversity in state government. Robb, the less partisan of the two, enjoyed a cordial relationship with the General Assembly and in 1988 was elected to the U.S. Senate. Baliles was a more activist governor: he promoted one of the largest road-building programs in Virginia history, secured tax reform legislation, and vigorously promoted Virginia’s role in world trade.

In 1989 L. Douglas Wilder, Baliles’s lieutenant governor, was elected the first African American governor of any American state. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, had been elected to the state senate in 1969. He had played a pivotal role in mobilizing black support for Robb’s gubernatorial bid in 1981. In 1985, Wilder sought the office of lieutenant governor and was elected the first African American statewide officeholder. He deftly rebutted criticism of his liberal record in the Senate, describing “liberal” as a racial code word. White Virginians responded to the idea that electing Wilder would liberate the state from its racist past. Endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police defused concerns about Wilder’s stand on criminal justice issues. The same year Wilder was elected lieutenant governor, voters also chose the first woman to hold statewide office: attorney general Mary Sue Terry.

Governor Doug Wilder's Inauguration

Four years later Wilder launched his historic quest for the governorship. In addition to using themes from 1985 he made abortion rights the centerpiece of his campaign after a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed states to place restrictions on the procedure. Wilder narrowly defeated Republican Marshall Coleman by 6,741 votes.

While Wilder’s election made history, his actions as governor contributed to a decline in the fortunes of Virginia Democrats in the 1990s. His brief presidential candidacy during an economic recession spurred resentment, as did his opposition to the Persian Gulf War. In addition, Wilder engaged in a bitter feud with Robb over his support for Wilder’s campaign. Robb was immersed in scandals regarding his personal behavior at this time, though they did not keep Robb from being reelected in 1994. Attorney General Terry’s attempt to become the state’s first female governor ended in defeat in 1993, when she lost to former congressman George F. Allen. In 1997 Republican James S. Gilmore III‘s promise to abolish the property tax on automobiles enabled Republican rule to continue. The Republican revival reached its climax in 1999 when the party won control of both houses of the General Assembly.

State Democratic Ticket in 2005

The Democrats recovered quickly in the new century as economic conditions deteriorated. Governor Gilmore had counted on a continuation of the robust state revenue collections of the 1990s when he promised to reimburse localities for the lost car tax revenue. Economic conditions, however, began to worsen late in 2000 as the country entered a recession. In 2001 bitter legislative clashes over the next stage of the car-tax phaseout involved Gilmore and House Republicans battling senators of both parties. The result was an unprecedented impasse on amending the biennial budget. Democrat Mark R. Warner, a multimillionaire businessman who had run a highly competitive race against Senator John Warner in 1996, declared his candidacy for governor. Campaigning as a moderate, he cited the budget crisis as evidence of the Republicans’ inability to govern competently. As governor, Warner made large budget reductions, delayed further reductions in the car tax, and persuaded the General Assembly to raise taxes in 2004. The tax increase did not damage Warner politically, and he was able to transfer his popularity to his lieutenant governor, Timothy M. Kaine, who succeeded him in 2006.

The Virginia Democratic Party enjoyed such success from 2001 to 2008 that it seemed on the verge of becoming once again the state’s dominant party. In addition to winning the governorship twice, the Democrats controlled both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of the Virginia delegation in the House of Representatives after the 2008 election. In 2006 former secretary of the navy James H. Webb Jr. unseated Senator George F. Allen. In 2008 Virginians gave Mark Warner a landslide victory over former governor Gilmore in the campaign to replace the retiring senator John Warner. That year the Democrats also captured the congressional seats in the Second and Fifth Districts as both candidates benefited from the thousands of new voters who were inspired to register by the presidential candidacy of Senator Barack H. Obama, of Illinois, the first African American nominated by a major party. In his campaign Obama placed a high priority on carrying Virginia. He became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state’s electoral vote since 1964. Demographic changes were in part responsible for the Democratic renaissance in Virginia. Population growth, especially migration to Northern Virginia, had reshaped the electorate.

The Democrats, however, did not have much time to savor their victories before Republicans won the governorship and the other statewide offices in 2009. Since the demise of the Byrd Organization, it seemed at various times that one party or the other would become dominant. While the Democrats still occupied a strong position in 2010, there was little doubt that Virginia remained a two-party competitive state.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison found the Republican Party (sometimes called the Democratic-Republican Party), the precursor to the modern-day Democratic Party. The party is committed to states' rights and strict construction of the Constitution.
The Virginia Republican Party splinters during President Andrew Jackson's second term in office. Jackson's supporters call themselves Democrats, while his opponents form the Whig Party. Over the next two decades, the Whig Party and the Democratic Party vie for political control of the state.
December 11—12, 1867
Convening in Richmond, a group of former Democrats, former Whigs, and moderate Republicans, led by Alexander H. H. Stuart, forms the Conservative Party.
Virginia's Conservative Party (which soon becomes the Democratic Party) succeeds in amending the state constitution, for the first time denying the right to vote to men who had not paid the state poll tax.
Virginia's Conservative Party changes its name to the Democratic Party and chooses a new leader, John S. Barbour Jr., who organizes the party down to the precinct level. Barbour's leadership marks the beginning of a long era of Democratic domination.
Following his mentor John S. Barbour Jr.'s death, Thomas Staples Martin becomes the Democratic Party leader. He will create a state political machine known as the Martin Organization.
Virginia's dominant conservative Democrats promulgate a new state constitution that equips local election officials with devices for disfranchising political opponents, including most African Americans and many Republicans. Voting participation in Virginia plummets.
January 31, 1922
Harry F. Byrd, a businessman and state senator, is first elected chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party, effectively beginning what is now known as the Byrd Organization.
Former governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. is appointed to the U.S. Senate and begins a thirty-two-year tenure there. He is the acknowledged leader of the Virginia Democratic Party's dominant conservative faction. His conservative voting record and alliances with Congressional Republicans stymie GOP growth within Virginia.
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, dominates Virginia politics. Byrd Democrats' politically popular Massive Resistance to school desegregation squelches budding support for Republicans in Virginia.
William Belser Spong Jr. runs against and defeats A. Willis Robertson for a seat in the U.S. Senate; his victory marks the beginning of the end of the Byrd Organization's control of Virginia politics.
November 4, 1969
A. Linwood Holton scores the GOP's long-awaited breakthrough in state elections, becoming the first Republican governor of Virginia in the twentieth century after defeating Democrat William C. Battle, the son of former governor John S. Battle.
Nine months after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, Democrat Charles S. Robb captures the Virginia governorship and begins a decade of Democratic dominance in state elections that will culminate in the 1989 election of L. Douglas Wilder, the first African American to be elected governor of a U.S. state.
November 7, 1989
L. Douglas Wilder narrowly defeats Republican J. Marshall Coleman to become the first elected black governor in U.S. history.
November 2, 1993
Republican George F. Allen overcomes a large deficit in public opinion polls and financial support to score a decisive victory in the election for governor, paving the way for a decade of GOP successes in the 1990s.
Democrat Mark R. Warner claims the state's top office, setting the stage for a series of Republican reversals and Democratic successes in statewide and legislative elections.
John W. Warner declines to run for reelection after serving five terms in the U.S. Senate (Warner's length of service is second only to Harry F. Byrd Sr.'s). Former governor Mark R. Warner succeeds John Warner in the Senate, and the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, carries the state for the first time in forty-four years.
November 3, 2009
Republican Robert F. McDonnell wins election as governor and leads a GOP sweep in which the party's candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general all win with double-digit margins.
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  • Heinemann, Ronald L. Harry Byrd of Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.
  • Link, William A. Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Moger, Allen W. Virginia: Bourbonism to Byrd, 1870–1925. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
  • Shade, William G. Democratizing the Old Dominion: Virginia and the Second Party System, 1824–1861. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.
  • Wilkinson, J. Harvie, III. Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945–1966. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
APA Citation:
Sweeney, James. Democratic Party of Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/democratic-party-of-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Sweeney, James. "Democratic Party of Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2022, April 20
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