Commentary

Republicans at a crossroads: Double down on Trump or try to expand the party’s tent?

December 21, 2020 12:01 am

Former Gov. Linwood Holton speaks on January 20, 1971. (Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine/ Photo: Bob Brown)

We’ve entered a new election season in Virginia with recriminations of the election seven weeks ago still raging and the Grand Old Party facing a moment of reflection on the course it will take in Virginia as November approaches.

On one hand is a party that in 1969 broke the historic stranglehold a then-segregationist Democratic Party had held on the commonwealth since Reconstruction by offering Virginians a new, more diverse and inclusive path.

On the other is today’s GOP, much of it loyal to President Donald Trump whose politics of polarization and White grievance cost him re-election. He amassed the largest vote total of any sitting president yet still lost the popular and Electoral College vote to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.  

In Virginia, Republicans have won when they’ve focused on universal, kitchen-table issues and offered conservative alternatives that resonate across broad economic, social, racial and ethnic strata. That was true at the end of the 1960s, a decade as turbulent as this one, when Abner Linwood Holton broke the back of the segregationist Democratic Byrd organization that controlled Virginia politics from courthouses all the way to the statehouse for much of the 20th century. It was the political machine behind “Massive Resistance,” state government’s structured effort to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended racially segregated public education.

Holton, now 97, came along in the late 1960s promising to listen to the voices of those long unheard and to make Virginia more egalitarian. He also benefited from a tectonic shift in politics one year earlier when Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” won whites in former Confederate states who had reflexively voted Democratic for a century over to the GOP – a trend that recent elections show is still largely intact except for Virginia.

When he took office, Holton lived up to the promise, particularly on matters of race. “The era of defiance is behind us,” he said in his inaugural address. “Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.”

Former Gov. Linwood Holton, left, appeared with then Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones (center) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, and others on election night in 2012. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Those are universally acclaimed truths today, but not so much in the Virginia of January 1970. Holton, the first Republican Virginia governor since Reconstruction, inherited a state where the outright rebellion of Massive Resistance had grudgingly morphed into a cynical strategy of slow, minimalist compliance with federal district court mandates to desegregate public school divisions, particularly in Richmond, the Confederacy’s onetime capital.

In August 1970, with the city’s recalcitrant public schools under a sweeping new federal court busing order and whites fleeing Richmond for its suburban counties, Holton set a personal example. He and First Lady Virginia “Jinks” Holton enrolled their three school-age children in Richmond city schools nearest the Executive Mansion although, as the governor’s children, they could have attended any public school. A photo of the governor escorting his 13-year-old daughter, Tayloe, into the mostly black John F. Kennedy High School to begin her freshman year appeared in newspapers nationally the next day, including above the fold of the The New York Times. The Holtons’ two younger children, son Woody and daughter Anne, were enrolled in Richmond’s Mosby Middle School. Anne would eventually marry a civil rights lawyer named Tim Kaine whose election as governor in 2005 gave her a second residency in the Executive Mansion before he became one of Virginia’s U.S. senators and the 2016 Democratic vice-presidential nominee.

Holton’s actions — not only in officially supporting racial desegregation but also by the first family’s practicing it — marked a historically significant turning point after which desegregation was broadly, though sometimes grudgingly, recognized.

“That iconic photo represented not only the acceptance but the endorsement of desegregation in Virginia,” said longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth. “That photo certified the righteousness of the movement.”

It didn’t stop there. Holton enjoyed broad support from African American organizations and reciprocated by becoming the first governor to widely bring Black professionals into influential posts within his administration.

It came at a high price for him politically. Barred by the state Constitution from seeking re-election to a second term, he sought to re-enter politics four years after leaving office with a U.S. Senate run, only to finish third in a field that included Richard Obenshain and John W. Warner for the GOP nomination in 1978. The nomination passed from Obenshain, who died in a plane crash shortly after becoming the nominee, to Warner, who served five Senate terms.

After Holton, no governor would ever attempt to impede the pace of school desegregation. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially made discrimination illegal, Holton’s term signaled the start in earnest of gains for Black people in business and politics that, 20 years after his election, made Virginia the first state to elect an African American governor.

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Inclusion works well when Republicans practice it. Jim Gilmore connected with Black voters in 1997 to win in a landslide, as did the last Republican to win a statewide election nearly a dozen years ago, Bob McDonnell. Both built solid conservative records and statewide renown from terms both served as state attorney general. Both ran campaigns that effectively reached out not just to Black voters but the state’s burgeoning Asian-American and Hispanic communities. And both focused their campaigns on pragmatic household concerns — Gilmore pledging to end the hated tax on automobiles and McDonnell articulating a plan to grow jobs at the depths of the Great Recession.

Those examples, Holsworth said, “represent a path that the Republican Party, in a more contemporary form, might want to consider.”

Next year, Virginia Republicans have such a choice before them when they select a nominee for November’s gubernatorial race — an election that has historically served as a first look at the nation’s political barometer a year after a presidential election.

On one hand is Amanda Chase, a firebrand state senator who calls herself “Trump in heels” and urged Trump last week not to concede his loss to Biden but to declare martial law to stay in power. Chase, rebuked numerous times by her party, initially said she would run for governor as an independent after the state GOP voted to pick its nominee in a convention rather than a primary as she preferred. She reversed course last week, promising to fight it out in the convention.

If she can keep Trump’s loyal and noisy following, she could be formidable within her party, particularly in a crowded field of candidates. Corey Stewart leveraged Trumpism to secure the GOP Senate nomination two years ago, but voters roundly rejected it — and him — in 2018’s off-year elections.

On the other hand, there’s Kirk Cox, one of the General Assembly’s longest-serving members who was House speaker before Democrats took legislative majorities earlier this year. Like McDonnell, Cox’s conservative credentials speak for themselves, though he alienated some on the GOP right by allowing the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia in 2018. Also, like McDonnell, Cox’s career as a public-school teacher affords him genuine credibility with minority voters and authentic standing on resonant household concerns such as education and jobs. Unlike McDonnell, Cox lacks broad name recognition.

It’s a crossroads moment for the Republican Party. It will signal whether it is a party still tied to Trump or one willing to chart a course more akin to the one Holton blazed half a century ago.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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