by Frank Muraca
When Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, Virginia’s Republican candidates for governor and Congress offered tepid support. Barbara Comstock, representing the diverse 10th district in Northern Virginia, actually withheld an endorsement, saying that Trump needed to “earn” her vote.
And when House Speaker Bill Howell told the Times-Dispatch that he, too, would back Trump, he tacked on an interesting comment:
Politics at the national level won’t change how Republicans in Virginia govern and lead. We’ve distinguished ourselves from Washington over the years, and I think voters recognize that.
Howell’s comment was true – Virginia has historically distanced itself from the unpredictability of national politics. There was a time when Virginia’s political leaders could step away from national politics, even declining to support their own party in presidential elections. But the fact that Virginia’s Republican establishment fell in line for Trump, whose persona and ethos run counter to the Commonwealth’s image of politicians as genteel statesman, shows how much that independence has waned in the past few decades.
The legacy of Harry Byrd Sr. influences Virginia politics today. From the 1920s until the early 1960s, Virginia was dominated by a one-party oligarchy that maintained unbridled control over the state government. The “Byrd Organization,” was just one of a handful of conservative, Democratic machines that controlled the political apparatus of southern states in the first half of the 20th century. Former Senator John Battle, one of the organization’s top leaders, described it as follows:
It is nothing more nor less than a loosely knit group of Virginians … who usually think alike, who are interested in the welfare of the Commonwealth, who are supremely interested in giving Virginia good government and good public servants, and they usually act together.
V.O. Key, one of the preeminent political scientists to study southern politics in this time period, wrote that Virginia was a “political museum piece.”
Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy. Political power has been closely held by a small group of leaders who, themselves and their predecessors, have subverted democratic institutions and deprived most Virginians of a voice in their government. The Commonwealth possesses characteristics more akin to those of England at about the time of the Reform Bill of 1832 than to those of any other state of the present-day South.
One of Byrd’s most consequential accomplishments was creating a political reality separate from the national scene.
With a small, controllable electorate, Virginia’s Democratic leaders were able to act independently of national trends or opinions. The organization flexed its muscle during the Great Depression when President Roosevelt, a fellow Democrat, was selling the New Deal to the American electorate. Virginia, a Democratic stronghold committed to fiscal conservatism, was one of the least cooperative states in enacting the New Deal’s programs. Continue reading