Charting the GOP’s Rise in the Old Dominion

In 1924, the country was keeping cool with Coolidge—the popular president would be elected in his own right in a landslide that fall—and both chambers of Congress were firmly in Republican hands, the House under the vigorous leadership of T.R.’s son-in-law, Nick Longworth, and the Senate under the direction of Charles Curtis, to this day the highest-ranking Native American in U.S. political history. The stock market was booming, the post-war malaise had lifted, and Republican fortunes had never been higher—at least not since the end of Reconstruction. It was a good time to be a Republican.

Except in the Old Dominion.

Over a half a century after the ratification of the Underwood Constitution, which led Virginia out of the Reconstruction Era, only five Republicans served in the Virginia House of Delegates, two from the Shenandoah Valley—“Mountain Valley Republicans,” heirs to those who might well have sought to join their counties with those creating West Virginia had Jackson’s army not been there—and three from the Commonwealth’s strongest Republican redoubt, Southwest Virginia.

Gone were the colorful days of Radical Republicans, Scalawags, and Readjusters battling it out with Redeemers and other Democrats. By 1924, there were only five Republicans left in the House, and their leader, John Russell of Lee County, couldn’t even bring himself to be an unalloyed Republican, running instead as a Bull Moose Republican, six years after Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party had folded back into the GOP.

That year, Virginia didn’t send a single Republican to the U.S. House. Bascom Slemp, a second generation Republican congressman from the 9th, concluded his final term in March 1923, and by 1924, he was serving in Washington as Calvin Coolidge’s Chief of Staff (then styled “Secretary to the President”). John Paul, Jr.’s time in Congress also concluded in March 1923, though under more interesting circumstances.

A Harrisonburg lawyer, he beat Democratic incumbent Thomas Harrison on his third try (despite barely polling double digits on his second go), but Harrison refused to be dislodged, presenting credentials and having himself re-seated. It was not until December 15, 1922 that Paul, who contested the results, was seated, and by that time, he had already been resoundingly defeated for reelection by Harrison, who took office March 3, 1923.

And thus it came to pass that, in the year that Calvin Coolidge trounced John W. Davis and Robert LaFollette 382-136-13 in the electoral college, besting Davis 54 – 29% in the popular vote, Virginia’s congressional delegation did not contain a single Republican, and wouldn’t until Jacob Garber, Menalcus Lankford, and Joseph Shaffer were elected in 1928, the last Republicans to represent Virginia in Congress until Richard Poff, Joel Broyhill, and William Wampler swept in with Eisenhower in 1952, following a two-decade long drought during which not one Virginia Republican served in Congress.

Such was the lot of Republicans in Virginia.

It wasn’t always this way; this wasn’t the story from Reconstruction to the creation of the modern Republican Party. In the early years after Reconstruction, Republicans successfully contested seats across the Commonwealth. Although a decidedly minority party, they were not an insignificant one. At least one Republican represented seven Virginia Districts (a total of ten existed at some point or another in that era) between the adoption of the Underwood Constitution and the turn of the 20th century—22 Republicans in all. At the high water mark in 1874, Republicans actually represented the majority of Virginia’s delegation, 5-4.

Since Reconstruction, Virginia has sent fifty-five Republicans to Congress, all told, including ten from the 2nd District. The 11th District has only sent one Republican, but then, it was only recently reestablished.  There was a time when Virginia had 23 Congressional Districts (1813-1823), but that number had declined to 13 by the outset of the Civil War, and carving out West Virginia further reduced the total, with Virginia’s delegation briefly shrinking to eight members around the time the Commonwealth emerged from Reconstruction.

The political organization of John Barbour and Thomas Martin took its toll on Virginia Republicans, but as late as the early 1920s, Virginia could elect the occasional Republican. Then Harry Byrd was elected Governor in 1925. Then everything changed. In 1920, there were thirteen Republicans and one Republican-turned-Independent in the House of Delegates—the party a shadow of its former self, but still clinging to life. By 1924 there were five, and the party wouldn’t see its 1920 numbers again until 1968, with a delegation that included John Dalton, Vince Callahan, Caldwell Butler, and Ray Garland.

That was also the year when Republican State Senators broke a small but significant barrier, finally representing more than ten percent of the upper chamber. Bouncing around between one and three members from 1936-1964, Republicans advanced to six seats in 1968, but wouldn’t claim a quarter of the chamber (10 seats) until 1987. Then, after five years at that level, Republicans surged into Senate relevance in the 1991 elections, with 18 Republicans taking their seats in the chamber in 1992, and Republicans taking an outright majority in the Senate for the first time in 1998.

In the House, the GOP advance took place more methodically. The party’s ascent begin in the early 1960s and, except for brief dips in the mid-’70s and mid-2000s, has been steadily upward ever since.

GOP HOD Timeline

Since 1920, 291 Republicans have served in the House of Delegates, for an average of 7 years each and a median of five years’ service. The mode, though, is two years—one term—and indeed 82 Republicans since 1920 have served one term or less. At the other extreme, Vince Callahan served for 40 years, Jim Dillard and Harvey Morgan for 32 years, Bob Tata for 31 years,  and Pete Giesen for 30 years.

Much has been written on the rise of the modern Republican Party in ‘60s and ‘70s under the leadership of men like Dick Obenshain, Linwood Holton, and John Dalton. But it was within an insubstantial minority in the House of Delegates that the prologue was written—penned by Republicans like Caldwell Butler (first elected in 1961), John Dalton (1965), Vince Callahan and Ray Garland (1967), Stan Parris (1971), Wyatt Durrette (1972), and Marshall Coleman (1973). And by the time they had made names for themselves, that once insubstantial minority was on the verge of something big.

It would, of course, prove far easier to take the Governor’s mansion than the General Assembly; such victories would have to wait. A full century passed before the party reclaimed the position it held in the 1870s, and it would take until the year 2000 for Republicans to oversee a unified government.

Other states saw conservative Democrats switch parties as the Solid South went from blue to red, but Virginia’s decades-long struggle is unique in that it was mostly internally directed—organic growth, not a systemic shock. The numbers only tell a small portion of the story, of course, but still: what a story.

Our series on State Senate dynamics will continue with posts on committee statistics next week. Follow us on on Facebook and subscribe to our RSS feed for the latest updates.

Posted in Virginia General Assembly.