Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.1
in the 2012 campaign for president, Democratic incumbent Barack Obama won Virginia because heavily-populated urban areas supported him - but every county and some cities west of the Blue Ridge voted for his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, in most cases by large margins
Source: Social Explorer, Election Competitiveness: Vote % Difference Between Democratic and Republican Candidates
The US Constitution, shaped by Virginia politicians, did not anticipate the emergence of political parties. The Constitution was designed to resolve sectional disputes, and to balance power between the states with small and large populations.
The Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties were the first to develop, and their divergent philosophies were clear in the heated election of 1800. Virginia politicians led the nation as president between 1800-24. In the 1820 election, James Monroe received all but one of the electoral votes. After 1820, the Federalist Party faded away as Andrew Jackson mobilized populist voters on the western frontier.
Jackson's Democratic-Republican party divided to become two national parties in the 1830's, the Whigs and the Democrats.
Both the Whigs and the Democrats split in the 1850's into regional factions that disagreed over the extension of slavery into the territories, especially Kansas and Nebraska. The dispute led to dissolution of the Whigs, the creation of the Republican Party, and the division of the Democratic Party. In 1860, the Northern faction of the Democratic Party nominated Stephen Douglas, but the southern faction walked out of the convention and nominated John Breckinridge in a convention held in Richmond, Virginia.
Virginia voted for John Bell, running on the Constitutional Union ticket, in 1860
Source: Library of Congress, "The national atlas of the United States of America," Election Results
Virginia voted for John Bell, nominated by the new Constitutional Union Party in hopes of finding a way to compromise and save the union. After Abraham Lincoln was elected, Virginia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederate State of America in 1861.
in 1860, Virginia narrowly voted for John Bell of the Constitutional Union party
Source: Library of Virginia, Certification of Electoral College, December 1860
The Union was preserved by military force and a four-year civil war, and between 1867-1870 Virginia was under military rule as Military District 1. During Reconstruction, political struggles in Virginia were between the Conservatives and the Republican parties. After the end of military rule and the withdrawal of the Federal Army following the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election in 1876, the Republican Party lost any opportunity to win a statewide election. Republicans were too closely associated with the Union Army that had fought across Virginia between 1861-65.
in 1876, Virginia voted for the Democratic candidate for president and became part of the Solid South opposing Republicans, reflecting antagonism towards the party of Abraham Lincoln
Source: Library of Virginia, Journal of the College of Electors of President and Vice President of the United States, 1876
The Conservatives aligned with the national Democratic Party, while opponents formed the Readjuster Party. The Readjuster Party, led by William Mahone, sought to pay less than 100% of the pre-war debt by partially repudiating some of the bonds and/or by modifying the payment dates in order to free up some state funding for social services.
The Conservatives/Democrats in Virginia after the Civil War had no desire to support the newly-freed slaves with taxpayer-funded public schools. They regained power in Virginia after claiming the Readjusters were advocates of social equality between whites and blacks, after which most white voters shifted to the Democratic Party in an alignment that lasted until after World War II.
The trigger for Democratic control was a race riot in Danville just before the 1883 elections for the General Assembly. The riot crystallized the fears of white voters that their control over social norms would be lost, and black voters would force a reduction of white privilege as well as force expenditure of public funds to serve black communities. Voters gave Democrats a majority in the state legislature that they would not lose for the next century.
Democrats consolidated power by electing former Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee as governor in 1885. The Democrats would win every election for governor until 1969.
Virginia remained part of the "Solid South," committed to the Democratic Party, until 1973. The Republicans were painted as liberals, willing to fund programs that benefited African-Americans. Democrats were the party of white privilege, implementing Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation and restricted the legal rights of non-whites.
The 1902 state constitution disenfranchised almost all non-white voters. The challenge of defining "white" culminated with General Assembly passage of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act and the campaign of the first registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker, to categorize anyone with one drop of non-white blood as Negro. Governor and then Senator Harry Byrd established a political machine that dominated Virginia politics until the 1960's. Racism was core to his political control; the Byrd "organization" led the effort to implement a program of massive resistance to block implementation of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court.
After the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the national Democratic Party shifted policies and began to support civil rights and higher taxes to fund government programs such as Social Security. The Virginia Democratic Party, under Sen. Byrd's direction, stayed reliably conservative.
All officials elected in statewide elections were Democrats, and the General Assembly was dominated by one party from 1886-1969. There were only a handful of elected Republicans, and patronage for Republicans was limited to Federal appointments by Republican presidents. The state legislature followed Byrd's "pay as you go" approach. In order to minimize taxes and debt, the General Assembly funded new roads and schools from just annual tax revenues and refused to sell bonds.
By the 1950's, Byrd stopped endorsing the Democratic Party's presidential candidates and maintained a "golden silence" every four years. In state elections, the Democratic Party was in such control that nomination in that party's primary was "tantamount to election." Only in the Ninth Congressional District in southwestern Virginia (the "Fighting Ninth") did Republicans succeed in winning a significant number of races, and one political scientist complained that Virginia was just a "museum of democracy." Virginia lacked viable two-party contests that reflected the shifting priorities of the voters, because the Byrd Machine successfully restricted who could register and vote through devices such as poll taxes.
in the 2018 School Board race in Prince William, party affiliations were not listed next to names of the three candidates
Source: Prince William County, Sample Ballot (November 6, 2018)
In Virginia, the increasing population in urban areas was blocked from gaining political power by careful drawing of election districts. Rural voters allied with the Byrd Organization, especially in the Shenandoah Valley and Southside Virginia, dominated elections until 1962.
After the Supreme Court's Baker v. Carr decision, Virginia was forced to redistrict boundaries to comply with the "one person, one vote" standard. That gave more seats to urban and suburban voters in Virginia. They were more supportive of funding for public schools, and more willing to go into debt to finance public infrastructure such as roads.
In 1969, Sen. Byrd was dead and the Democratic Party in Virginia divided between conservatives and more-liberal voters. The Republican candidate, Linwood Holton, won the race for governor. At the state level, the Republican Party was viewed as more liberal on race relations, while the Democratic Party was viewed as the conservative alternative.
Virginia's first Republican governor, elected in 1969, was a "Mountain and Valley Republican" born in Wise County
That was in clear contrast to the alignment of the political parties at the national level. In 1968, Richard Nixon appealed to conservatives in southern states to switch their allegiance, using coded language such as law and order to draw conservatives away from the Democratic Party.
Nixon's election as president was based on a Southern Strategy. It branded the Republican Party as willing to defend traditional practices that discriminated against people of color, and labeled the Democratic Party as "too liberal" on a variety of social justice issues. President Nixon's overwhelming re-election in 1972 demonstrated the success of that strategy.
During Governor Holton's term, the parties realigned in Virginia to match the national pattern. Harry Byrd Jr., who had been appointed as a US Senator to replace his father in 1965, won the Democratic primary in 1966 by the narrow margin of only 8,200 votes of the 435,000 total votes.
Senator Byrd avoided the risk of defeat in the 1970 Democratic primary by choosing to run as an Independent. Not running as a Democrat als meant he was not obliged to sign the "loyalty oath" required by the Virginia Democratic Central Committee. Byrd said he could not commit in 1970 to support the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, since no one know who would be that candidate. Byrd won in 1970 and again in 1976, and is the last person to win statewide office as an Independent.2
Political conservatives recruited former Governor Mills Godwin to run for govenor in 1973 as a Republican. He had been a Democrat in 1966, but in 1972 the Nansemond County Democratic Committee blocked his attempt to go to the Democratic State Convention. He supported the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, in the 1972 presidential election.
Godwin considered running for governor in 1973 as a Independent, but the Republicans made clear that they would nominate their own candidate rather than tacitly support Godwin as an Independent. If Godwin ran as an Independent and created a three-way race, then liberal Democratic candidate Henry Howell was predicted to win.
Godwin decided to switch parties and was elected governor, the first person since "Extra Billy" Smith in 1864 to be elected to that office twice. Governor Mills Godwin served in 1966-70 as a Democrat, and in 1974-78 as a Republican.3
For General Assembly seats, young Republican candidates replaced older Democrats over the next 25 years. In 1999, the Republican Party finally achieved majority status in the General Assembly.
The recovery of the Democratic Party in Virginia began in the 2001 election, when Mark Warner defeated the Republican candidate. Another Democrat, Tim Kaine, followed Governor Warner in 2005. Republican Bob McDonnell won the office in 2009, but the next two governors were Democrats.
No Republican won statewide office between 2009-2018. The state shifted from a reliably Republican ("red") state to reliably Democratic ("blue"). In 2008, 2012, and 2016, Virginia voted for the Democratic candidate for president. In 2017, a "blue wave" replaced 15 Republicans in the House of Delegates and for the second time in a row elected three Democrats as Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. In 2018, incumbent Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, was re-elected with 57% of the vote.4
One of the switches was in the 13th District, where voters replaced the Republican incumbent by electing Virginia's first openly transgender official. The incumbent had been in office since 1992. He regularly highlighted his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and tried to get a law passed that would mandate people use bathrooms based on the gender listed on their birth certificate.
suburban voters, such as the 13th District for the House of Delegates, are key to election success now
Source: Virginia General Assembly, Who's My Legislator
In the 2018 General Assembly, Republicans kept their narrow control of the State Senate, 21-19. The Lieutenant Governor who could break a tie on most votes was a Democrat, so each Republican State Senator's vote was critical. In the House of Delegates, Republicans had lost their 66-34 majority but managed to retained control. They had 51 of the 100 seats, but only because a tie vote in the 94th District ended up as a Republican victory after names were picked out of a film canister.
Elections have consequences. Though Republicans retained control of both houses of the General Assembly after the 2017 election, several of them switched their position on expansion of Medicaid as authorized in the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). In a special session, the General Assembly approved Medicaid expansion in 2018.
Former Representative Tom Davis, a Republican who had been elected seven times (1994-2006) to the US Congress from Northern Virginia and served as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, highlighted the expanding number of suburban voters in Northern Virginia as the key to the failure of the Republican Party in statewide elections after 2009.
He suggested that Virginia had divided into two one-party states. Rural voters were supporting Republican candidates reliably, while suburban/urban voters were supporting Democratic candidates reliably. Demographic change had steadily reduced the number of rural voters, but Republican Party policies remained focused on their concerns. As Davis noted, vote-rich Northern Virginia resembled New Jersey while rural Virginia resembled Alabama, and the Republicans:5
The Democratic candidate for the US Senate won in 2018, the ninth statewide election in which no Republicans was elected to a statewide office. In every jurisdiction, the Democratic percentage of the vote in 2018 was higher than in 2017.
A professor at Mary Washington University, with long experience observing Virginia politics, suggested demographic changes would benefit Democratic candidates even more in the future. He advised the Republican Party to adapt to the concerns of the changing electorate in suburban and urban areas, rather than continue to rely upon traditional Republican voters in rural areas:6
in the 1880 election, the Republican candidate (James A. Garfield) got less than 40% of the votes in Virginia, and they were concentrated in Southside and on the Northern Neck where the percentage of black voters was highest
Source: Library of Congress, "Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States," Plate 11: Popular Vote: 1880
the concentration of the "colored population" in 1880 explains the percentage of votes for the Republican Party, which had ended slavery
Source: Library of Congress, "Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States," Plate 24: Population (Colored Population)
in the 1884 election, the Republican candidate (James A. Garfield) got 49% of the votes in Virginia, and won several counties west of the Blue Ridge
Source: Library of Congress, "Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States," Popular Vote: 1884
in the 1888 election, the Republican candidate (Benjamin Harrison) lost to Grover Cleveland
Source: Library of Congress, "Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States," Popular Vote: 1888
1. "Ernest Benn," The Quotations Page, http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Ernest_Benn/ (last checked August 21, 2014)
2. "Byrd Leaves Party in Virginia Over Democratic Loyalty Oath," New York Times, March 18, 1970, https://www.nytimes.com/1970/03/18/archives/byrd-leaves-party-in-virginia-over-democratic-loyalty-oath-byrd.html (last checked September 23, 2018)
3. "Two-Time Va. Gov. Mills Godwin Dies," Washington Post, February 1, 1999, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1999/02/01/two-time-va-gov-mills-godwin-dies/7cd7dab1-8e64-4ea1-8cbf-ff0d92675f6a/; James R. Sweeney & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, "Mills E. Godwin (1914–1999)," Encyclopedia Virginia, December 19, 2016, http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Godwin_Mills_E_1914-1999 (last checked September 23, 2018)
4. "After thrills of wave election, Virginia's freshmen Democrats see most of their bills die in GOP-controlled House," Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 17, 2018, http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/general-assembly/after-thrills-of-wave-election-virginia-s-freshmen-democrats-see/article_dc818fbf-6fbd-5018-ba20-b009f10b63e6.html; "2018 November General," Virginia Department of Elections, https://results.elections.virginia.gov/vaelections/2018%20November%20General/Site/Congress.html (last checked Nvember 12, 2018)
5. "Republicans haven't won statewide in Virginia since 2009. Tuesday's Senate primary shows why," CNN, June 9, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/09/politics/virginia-republicans-senate-primary/index.html (last checked June 11, 2018)
6. "Commentary: A changing Virginia - and an unchanging Republican Party," Free Lance-Star, November 10, 2018, https://www.fredericksburg.com/opinion/columns/commentary-a-changing-virginia---and-an-unchanging-republican/article_1606c6b8-6f27-5522-b65b-0844740e4a43.html (last checked November 12, 2018)