How The South Became Republican, Part I: Virginia (1952-2012)

Image result for Virginia state flag

I had previously done a series called “How the Northeast Became Democrat” and now I am starting a new one, “How The South Became Republican”. I will cover roughly in the order the states shifted to the Republican Party. I am covering Virginia first as it was one of the first southern states to move into the GOP column and now it appears to be the first to move away from it. Virginia is currently the “black sheep” of the South, so to speak. This was the only state in the South to vote for Hillary Clinton in a reversal of the 1976 election and one of the states the GOP sustained some of the worst losses in the 2018 midterms, with their congressional delegation almost being halved. Incumbent members of Congress Scott Taylor, Dave Brat, and Barbara Comstock lost reelection, bringing the GOP’s representation in the state down from 7 to 4. On a congressional level, only New Jersey and California produced worse losses for Republicans. Both its senators are Democrats, which is the case in no other southern state. However, Virginia had a long period of Republicanism and conservatism: from 1952 to 2004, the state voted Democrat only once for president, in 1964. How did this period of Republicanism come about?

The state of Virginia, having been a former Confederate state and the home of Robert E. Lee, had voters resentful to the GOP for a long time. The state had been consistently Democrat since Reconstruction save for a minor interruption in the 1880s from the Readjuster Party. The victories Republicans had in the state during this time tended to be in the Appalachian region, with Virginia’s 9th district being held for all but four years by Republicans from 1895 to 1923. However, in the early 20th century the Democratic leadership started growing more conservative, with the most notable of them being Senator Carter Glass and Governor Harry F. Byrd. Contrary to popular belief, the president who started the “Southern Strategy” on the GOP side wasn’t Richard Nixon in 1968, but Herbert Hoover forty years earlier. Hoover focused on cultivating white voters for the Republican Party and emphasized moral stands, such as strengthening enforcement of prohibition and emphasizing “family values”, making sure to differentiate himself as much as possible from anti-Prohibition Catholic Democrat Al Smith. Hoover’s efforts at appealing to the South in the 1928 election paid dividends: for the first time since Reconstruction, Florida, Texas, and Virginia were won by a Republican and Virginia elected three Republicans to the House that year as well. He even almost won Alabama. However, Hoover’s “Southern Strategy” didn’t last, as the Great Depression and World War II postponed any significant efforts at moving the GOP to the South until the 1950s. However, Virginia’s political climate, even before the 1950s, was becoming ripe for the GOP.

During the Great Depression and World War II, the state’s senators were Byrd and Glass. Despite the two men being Democrats, they proved staunch opponents of FDR’s New Deal and many of Virginia’s representatives proved to be so as well, the most notable examples being Howard W. Smith (who would become an infamously obstructive Rules Committee chair) and future senator Willis Robertson. Combine this political climate with an increasing level of suburbanization and new Republican voters moving into the state strongly influenced the results of the 1952 election, in which the state not only voted for Eisenhower, but also elected three Republicans to the House, two of whom were reelected. One of them, Richard Poff, became part of the GOP House leadership and was even considered by President Nixon for the Supreme Court. In 1966, the state’s conservative Democrat machine, the Byrd Organization, fell apart: Byrd Sr. died of brain cancer and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 resulted in black voters making an impact on the Democratic primary with the defeat of Senator Robertson and Representative Smith for renomination. The Republicans stepped in for the conservative Democrats, as the state gained two Republican representatives and would gain another in the 1968 election. The increasingly liberal policies of the national Democratic Party pushed the state to the Republicans and did so at a faster rate than any other former Confederate state. In 1972, the state elected its first Republican Senator since Reconstruction, Congressman William Scott. Scott would be succeeded after one term by Republican John Warner, who held the seat for thirty years. By 1981, the state had reached its apex in Republican representation: only one of its senators and one of its representatives wasn’t a Republican, and they voted like Republicans. Although the Democrats regained some ground and had some statewide successes in the 1980s, such as the elections of three consecutive governors and Senator Chuck Robb, the state could still be counted on for presidential elections by Republicans. However, the State Legislature was more resistant to this trend. The GOP didn’t win the State Senate until the 1996 election, and have held it since for all but four years. The Republicans didn’t get a majority in the House of Delegates until the 2000 elections, which they have held since.

Finally, in 2008, Virginia voted for Democrat Barack Obama. Although the 2009 gubernatorial election and the 2010 midterms were a turnaround for the state’s GOP, since 2012 their fortunes have been falling. Despite the state’s previously conservative reputation, time and time again Republicans struggled in statewide races and were unable to win either of the Senate seats, or, since Bob McDonnell’s departure in 2013, a governor’s race. While suburbanization had helped the GOP in the past, it is now harming them: the state’s Democratic trend can be largely attributed to the growth of the Washington D.C. suburbs, of which many of its residents are employees of the federal government. These voters are largely acting in their own interests as a Democrats tend to be supportive of expanding the federal government while Republicans tend to oppose it. This can be observed with the recent voting behavior of the D.C. suburb congressional districts, the 10th and 11th. From 1995 to 2009, Virginia’s 11th district was represented by moderate conservative Tom Davis. After he called it quits, the district elected national Democrat Gerry Connolly, and since 2012 Republicans haven’t given the district serious attention for a takeover. In 2018, Democrat Jennifer Wexton defeated Republican Barbara Comstock in the 10th district, the first time a Democrat has won the seat in forty years. Worse yet for Republicans, in 2008 the state not only voted for Barack Obama, but also for Democrat Mark Warner for the Senate with 65% of the vote, with Republican Jim Gilmore winning only a third of the vote.

The Democratic name brand, despite recent controversies surrounding Governor Ralph Northam, seems to sell for the majority of Virginia voters. This marketability has been assisted by them having had some strong candidates such as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb, while Republicans have had some weak ones like Jim Gilmore and Corey Stewart. The ethics issues of former Republican Governor Bob McDonnell haven’t helped the state’s GOP either. Although a Democratic takeover like in the 7th district seems unlikely to stay in their hands, the trends with the D.C. suburbs represent a longer trend of an increasing number of moderately liberal voters in the state. Similarly ominous for Republicans was the 2017 election, which left Republicans with only a one member majority in both chambers. The Democrats are gunning for the majority in 2019 election, and the likelihood of them getting it increased with a recent victory in court for them in a gerrymandering Supreme Court case, which overturned 11 House of Delegates districts that had at least 55% black residents of voting age.

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