Republican Party of Virginia


The Republican Party is one of two major political parties in Virginia. Although founded in 1854 in opposition to the spread of slavery, the party did not take hold in Virginia until after the American Civil War (1861–1865). Even then, for nearly a century the Republicans were an ineffectual, minority party with only pockets of regional strength. During this period, the conservative Democratic Party dominated politics in Virginia and the rest of the South. After World War II (1939–1945), economic growth, demographic trends, electoral reforms, and policy debates combined to spur a realignment that gradually brought the Virginia parties into line philosophically with their national counterparts. As the center-right party in a conservative-leaning state, the Virginia Republican Party became consistently competitive. Following the mid-1970s, Virginia politics settled into a pattern characterized by active competition between the two major party organizations and their candidates. Partisan fortunes ebbed and flowed, but neither party established durable majority support on a statewide basis. In the twenty-first century Republican candidates in Virginia routinely compete with their Democratic rivals for the support of nonaligned voters (generally called “independents”) in addition to mobilizing fellow partisans.

Early Republican History in Virginia

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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 Unionist, Republican sympathy existed, mainly in the state’s mountainous western reaches, but most Virginians identified with the Confederacy, established following Lincoln’s election in 1860.

William Mahone

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 “readjust” 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 William Mahone (hero of the Battle of the Crater), supporters of war-debt readjustment, western Republicans, and scattered elements of other factions forged a governing coalition. They elected one of their own (William E. Cameron) 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.

Members and Officers of The Constitutional Convention of Virginia

The dominant Democrats in 1902 promulgated a new Virginia Constitution whose chief end was to disenfranchise African Americans. The poll tax, 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. senator Thomas Staples Martin led the dominant conservative Democratic faction early in the twentieth century. In 1924, Harry F. Byrd Sr. 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.

Harry F. Byrd

The Republican Party of Virginia rarely competed seriously with the Democratic Byrd Organization prior 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

General Dwight D. Eisenhower Addresses Paratroopers before the Invasion of Normandy

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.

Governor Almond Signs the "Little Rock" Bill

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 the public-school desegregation edict—a policy dubbed Massive Resistance—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. Linwood Holton, 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.

Henry E. Howell Jr.

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. Mills E. Godwin Jr., the Byrd Democrat who preceded Holton as governor, switched parties and was elected governor again as a Republican in 1973. His running mate, John N. Dalton (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, John W. Warner, 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) Charles S. Robb and L. Douglas Wilder, 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.

State Democratic Ticket in 2005

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.

April 23, 1884
The Republican Party of Virginia, led by ex-Confederate general William Mahone, is formed during a time of shifting political coalitions in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
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.
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.
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower captures Virginia's electoral votes, becoming only the second GOP presidential candidate to do so in the twentieth century. U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Sr.'s tacit support of the war hero's candidacy contributes to the Republican victory.
State senator Theodore Roosevelt "Ted" Dalton wages the Republicans' first serious bid for the Virginia governorship since the 1880s.
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.
Virginia Republicans tap Hazel Barger as the party's candidate for lieutenant governor, making her the first female major-party nominee for statewide office in Virginia.
Federal judicial decisions and Congressional actions invalidate the discriminatory election laws that have restricted the size of Virginia's electorate and sustained the Byrd Organization's grip on power.
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.
Conservative Richard D. Obenshain becomes chairman of the Virginia Republican Party as liberals capture leadership of the state Democratic Party, bringing the Virginia parties in line with their national counterparts and signaling a political realignment in the commonwealth.
William L. Scott, a little-known member of the U.S. Congress from Fairfax, upsets a Democratic incumbent to become the first Virginia Republican to serve in the U.S. Senate since the Mahone era of the 1880s.
The unfolding Watergate scandal causes most conservative Democratic officeholders in Virginia to refrain from following Mills E. Godwin's lead and switching to the GOP. The scandal forestalls a rapid partisan realignment in the state.
November 6, 1973
Former governor Mills E. Godwin, a Byrd Democrat, switches parties and wins election as Virginia's second consecutive Republican governor. He defeats Henry E. Howell Jr.
Virginia voters narrowly give the state's electoral votes to incumbent President Gerald R. Ford over challenger Jimmy Carter, making Virginia the only southern state to remain in the Republican presidential column.
John N. Dalton is elected Virginia's third consecutive Republican governor. J. Marshall Coleman becomes the first Republican attorney general in the twentieth century.
Richard D. Obenshain captures the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate at a tumultuous, record-setting convention. After his accidental death two months later, John W. Warner is nominated and narrowly wins the general election.
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 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.
Republicans gain parity and force power-sharing arrangements in both houses of the General Assembly, then capture outright GOP majorities in both legislative chambers. Delegate S. Vance Wilkins of Amherst becomes the first Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates in the twentieth century.
The Republican statewide ticket led by James S. Gilmore III achieves the first GOP sweep of all three statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general).
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.
  • Atkinson, Frank B. The Dynamic Dominion: Realignment and the Rise of Two-Party Competition in Virginia, 1945–1980 (revised second edition). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, 2006.
  • Atkinson, Frank B. Virginia in the Vanguard: Political Leadership in the 400-Year-Old Cradle of American Democracy, 1981–2006. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, 2006.
  • Black, Earl, and Merle Black. The Rise of Southern Republicans. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Day, Barnie, and Becky Dale. Notes from the Sausage Factory. Lawrenceville, Virginia: Brunswick Publishing, 2005.
  • Heinemann, Ronald L. Harry Byrd of Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
  • Heinemann, Ronald L., John G. Kolp, Anthony S. Parent Jr., and William G. Shade. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607–2007. University of Virginia Press, 2007.
  • Morris, Thomas R., and Larry J. Sabato. Virginia Government and Politics. Charlottesville: Virginia Chamber of Commerce and University of Virginia Center for Public Service, 1990.
APA Citation:
Atkinson, Frank. Republican Party of Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/republican-party-of-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Atkinson, Frank. "Republican Party of Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, July 12
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