Early Party Formation
The Antebellum Period
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.
Reconstruction, Redemption, and Readjustment
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.
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.
The Byrd Organization
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.
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.
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.
Realignment, Two-Party Competition, and a Changing Virginia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1792 - 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.
1830s - 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 forms the Conservative Party.
1876 - 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.
1883 - 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.
1892 - 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.
1902 - 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.
1933 - 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.
1954–1959 - 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.
1966 - William Belser Spong Jr. runs against and defeats A. Willis Robertson for a seat in the United States 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.
1981 - Nine months after the inauguration of U.S. 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.
2001 - 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.
2008 - 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.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Sweeney, J. R. Democratic Party of Virginia. (2015, January 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Democratic_Party_of_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Sweeney, James R. "Democratic Party of Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: June 27, 2012 | Last modified: January 15, 2015
Contributed by James R. Sweeney, associate professor of history, Old Dominion University.