Early Republican History in Virginia
The Virginia political system is now one of the nation’s most competitive, but the Republican Party’s ability to compete statewide and in Virginia’s most populous regions is a relatively recent phenomenon. During most of the period from the Civil War era to the latter part of the twentieth century, Democrats were dominant in Virginia, and Republicans comprised a small, beleaguered minority.
The national Republican Party—the “Grand Old Party” (or GOP)—was seen by most nineteenth-century Virginians as the party of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, the Union’s wartime “invasion,” and the harsh Reconstruction (1865–1877) imposed by radicals in the U.S. Congress. A few pockets of, Republican sympathy existed, mainly in the state’s mountainous western reaches, but most Virginians identified with the Confederacy, established following Lincoln’s .
After the South’s military defeat and reconstruction, a period of shifting political alliances ensued in Virginia. The issue of whether to repay fully or “” the state’s war debt loomed large in the political discourse. For a brief time in the 1880s, a group that included influential ex-Confederates led by General (hero of the ), supporters of war-debt readjustment, western Republicans, and scattered elements of other factions forged a governing coalition. They elected one of their own ( ) as governor, narrowly gained a majority in the Virginia legislature, awarded a U.S. Senate seat to Mahone, and, in 1884, formally adopted the name Republican Party of Virginia. This Readjuster-Republican ascendancy was as short-lived as it was improbable. The most significant consequence of this brief rise to power was to further galvanize the more numerous conservatives, war-debt “funders,” and ex-Confederate politicians into a potent force that during the same period became known as the Democratic Party of Virginia. Before the decade was out, the Readjuster-Republican coalition collapsed in infighting and intrigue, and Democratic hegemony commenced.
The dominant Democrats in 1902 promulgated a newwhose chief end was to African Americans. The , literacy test, and other artifices for electoral manipulation enabled local election officers to deny voting rights to large numbers of citizens, including most African Americans and many Republicans, who did not support the ruling party’s conservative policies and organization. The Virginia electorate quickly shrank to a small percentage of the voting-age population, resulting in a largely noncompetitive political system in which candidates for statewide office—invariably, conservative Democrats—were elected with the votes of less than 12 percent of the voting-age population.
U.S. senatorled the dominant conservative Democratic faction early in the twentieth century. In 1924, was elected governor, and his activist tenure produced far-reaching policy changes. In 1933, he went to the U.S. Senate, where he remained for thirty-two years as the acknowledged leader of the state’s Democratic organization, which came to bear his name.
The Republican Party of Virginia rarely competed seriously with the Democraticprior to the Second World War. The primary exception was in Virginia’s southwestern counties, where GOP sympathies traced their roots to the Civil War, and where a Republican, C. Bascom Slemp, held a seat in Congress for sixteen years. Seldom was there a viable Republican organization elsewhere in the state, and the party’s few adherents seemed intent on keeping their ranks small as a means of protecting federal patronage opportunities during Republican presidential administrations. Byrd’s conservative outlook on national issues and his frequent alliance with congressional Republicans also served to stymie GOP growth in Virginia. Democratic Party primaries were tantamount to election, and when moderate or liberal challengers imperiled the ruling machine’s candidates in primary contests, Republicans sympathetic to Byrd’s conservative policies often participated in the Democratic balloting and supported the Byrd-backed candidate.
Republican Stirrings at Mid-Century
The first major stirrings of Republican competitiveness came with the 1952 U.S. presidential candidacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many of the Virginians who voted for the popular war hero that year were casting Republican ballots for the first time in their lives. The general enjoyed the tacit support of Byrd and his senior loyalists, which made the crossover voting more palatable. Eisenhower won Virginia’s electoral votes—at the time he was only the second Republican to do so, the other being Herbert Hoover in 1928—and in the process he made voting for Republican presidential candidates socially and politically acceptable in the Democrat-dominated state. Following Eisenhower’s 1952 breakthrough, Republican presidential candidates carried the state every four years, with Lyndon Baines Johnson being the only exception, for the remainder of the century.
A year after Eisenhower’s victory, Republicans mounted their first serious bid for the Virginia governorship since the Mahone era. Their 1953 standard bearer was state senator Theodore Roosevelt “Ted” Dalton of Radford, an affable candidate, energetic campaigner, and inveterate party-builder. While generally conservative on national issues, Dalton offered an ambitious agenda of state-level policy reforms aimed at modernizing state government and increasing political participation. On the heels of Eisenhower’s breakthrough, Dalton’s candidacy appeared headed for success until his late-campaign pronouncement favoring bond-financed road construction transgressed Byrd’s antidebt orthodoxy and undercut Dalton’s crossover appeal to conservative Democrats.
Dalton ran again for governor in 1957, but by then the political environment in the state had changed dramatically. The rapid postwar growth of the commonwealth’s urban and suburban population centers and the diversification of its formerly agricultural economy continued apace, at length undermining the social, economic, and cultural predicate for Byrd Organization dominance. But these underlying dynamics were trumped politically in the mid-1950s by the reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Adopting a stance of hard-line resistance to theedict—a policy dubbed —Byrd and his lieutenants stoked public resentment over the emotionally charged issue and gained renewed political support in most of the state. Virginia Republicans took no unified position on the volatile topic but were identified with the Eisenhower administration’s unpopular efforts to enforce the ruling, including the dispatch of federal troops to Arkansas in 1957 to quell desegregation-related violence. The momentum for Republican gains, strikingly apparent in the 1952 and 1953 contests, disappeared completely—albeit temporarily.
Breakthrough in State Elections
The court-impelled collapse of Massive Resistance in 1959 was followed within a few years by federal legislative and judicial actions that invalidated the discriminatory features of Virginia’s election laws. These changes removed most of the electoral advantages enjoyed by the Byrd Organization in party primaries and general elections. By the time Harry F. Byrd Sr. died in 1966, his aging organization already had lost much of its clout and many of its adherents, as demands for more generous state funding for education and other public services mounted in the state’s growing metropolitan areas. More liberal forces were gaining strength in the Democratic Party’s nominating processes, while Republicans increasingly were appealing to conservative and independent voters in general elections.
In 1969, Republicans achieved the gubernatorial breakthrough that eluded them in 1953., a native of southwestern Virginia who cut his political teeth battling the Byrd Organization and urging progressive alternatives to its policies, won the governorship by assembling an unlikely coalition of western Republicans, suburban moderates and independents, disenchanted Democratic conservatives, and anti-Byrd black and labor Democrats. The conservative and liberal Democratic factions had battled bitterly in the primary contests that year, and for divergent reasons they expressed their pique by voting for Holton. Holton also attracted crucial campaign funding that had been denied earlier Republican candidates. Richmond financier Lawrence Lewis Jr., a Byrd Organization ally, led conservative business leaders in backing the GOP gubernatorial candidate in 1969, inaugurating a pattern that would benefit Republican statewide candidates in subsequent contests.
As the first Republican governor in almost a century, Holton endeavored to govern in a bipartisan fashion that would win broad-based confidence among voters in the Democrat-leaning state. In the process, however, he disappointed fellow partisans’ patronage expectations. He also antagonized Republican conservatives by resisting opportunities to build coalitions with Byrd Organization elements that were increasingly estranged from the left-moving state Democratic Party. After Holton-backed moderates failed to wage competitive bids in several successive general elections, the sitting governor lost control of the state Republican Party to more conservative forces led by Richmond lawyer Richard D. Obenshain, who had waged creditable but unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. Congress in 1964 and attorney general in 1969.
Obenshain, a lifelong Republican and philosophical kinsman of national GOP leaders Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, advocated building the Virginia Republican Party by attracting disaffected Byrd Democrats, thereby giving the party a clear center-right identity. While Obenshain was becoming Republican state chairman in 1972, liberal forces aligned with Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern and liberal-populist Henry E. Howell Jr., the lieutenant governor, were seizing control of key leadership positions in the Virginia Democratic Party. These changes brought both state parties into philosophical alignment with their national party counterparts for the first time since Reconstruction. The dramatic party shifts also dislodged many Virginians from their previous party attachments. Especially in the state’s fast-growing suburbs, an enlarged bloc of moderate-conservative independent “swing” voters emerged that would play a decisive role in Virginia elections for decades.
A Competitive Republican Party and Two-Party System
With their center-right coalition-building strategy set, Republicans went on to dominate Virginia election contests for the remainder of the 1970s., the Byrd Democrat who preceded Holton as governor, switched parties and was elected governor again as a Republican in 1973. His running mate, (son of the 1953 and 1957 standard bearer), was elected lieutenant governor in 1973 and gained the governorship in 1977. Virginia Republicans also capitalized on U.S. president Richard M. Nixon’s reelection landslide in 1972 to capture a lopsided majority of the state’s congressional seats and to elect U.S. representative William L. Scott as the first Republican U.S. senator from Virginia since Reconstruction. Six years later, Obenshain gained the Republican nomination to succeed Scott in a spirited contest that attracted more than 9,000 convention delegates, making it the largest such assemblage in American history to that time. When Obenshain died in an airplane crash two months later, his chief convention rival, , assumed the nomination and eked out a narrow election victory, commencing a five-term Senate tenure.
The Virginia GOP’s statewide winning streak in the 1970s was unmatched by any other state party—Republican or Democratic—in the country, but party fortunes in newly competitive Virginia soon were completely reversed. Despite the Ronald Reagan–era GOP presidential wins in 1980, 1984, and 1988, Virginia Democrats scored consecutive sweeps in elections for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general in 1981, 1985, and 1989. Led by like-minded moderates (but frequent rivals)and , Democrats forged a winning center-left coalition that consistently attracted centrist independent voters throughout the decade.
In the 1990s, with Democrats controlling the White House, Virginia Republicans rebounded behind the lead of a youthful former lawmaker, George F. Allen, who captured the governorship in 1993 and a U.S. Senate seat in 2000. Allen duplicated in Virginia the winning coalition—economic and social conservatives, suburban independents, and some blue-collar Democrats—that had propelled Reagan to lopsided victories in the previous decade’s national contests. As governor, Allen championed a series of major policy reforms that gained approval from the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and gave his party a popular platform with which to attract voters throughout the 1990s. Allen’s gubernatorial successor, Republican James S. Gilmore III, capped years of gradual GOP gains in state legislative elections by leading his party to majorities in both houses of the General Assembly in 1999. Delegate S. Vance Wilkins of Amherst became the first Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates in the twentieth century, and Virginia’s long-running realignment, a transition from one-party control to two-party competitiveness at all levels, was now complete.
The well-established rollercoaster pattern in Virginia politics continued as the Republican-dominated 1990s gave way to a string of major Democratic victories after the turn of the century. Mark R. Warner, a successful businessman and resolute centrist, scored the Democratic breakthrough by heavily outspending his Republican foe and winning back the governorship for Democrats in 2001. Coming on the heels of U.S. president George W. Bush’s election in 2000, the 2001 gubernatorial contest represented the seventh consecutive time that the party controlling the White House had lost the contest for governor in Virginia. It also set the course of state politics for the decade, with Democrats thereafter capturing both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, electing Timothy M. Kaine as the second consecutive Democratic governor, regaining majority control in the state senate, and carrying Virginia for the Democratic presidential nominee—Barack Obama—in 2008 for the first time in forty-four years. With Obama in the White House, party fortunes in Virginia again were reversed in 2009, as GOP former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell captured the governorship and Republicans swept the three statewide elective offices and ousted eight Democratic legislative incumbents.
The pronounced ebb and flow of party fortunes in Virginia from decade to decade frequently has led commentators erroneously to declare the triumph or demise of one party or the other. In reality, the Republican Party and its rival are viable contenders in most Virginia elections, and have been for nearly half a century. With its competitive political system, odd-year elections, and proximity to the nation’s capital, Virginia likely will remain a political bellwether for the country, which is itself evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.