A divided government is Virginia’s natural condition. Has been for 50 years.

It’s one of several distinctions that sets Virginia apart from its sister states in the South.

November 13, 2023 12:45 am

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Ever notice that neither party tends to stay in power very long in Virginia? It’s become our natural condition.

Cable TV politicos tend to get all breathless from time to time and dye Virginia cardinal red or cobalt blue, depending on which way the pendulum swings from one election cycle to the next. The truth is we’re a deep purple Goldilocks state — preferring our politics not too left, not too right — and have been for more than 50 years.

It’s one of several distinctions that sets Virginia apart from its sister states in the South.

From the latter 19th century through the 1960s, one-party rule was the order of the day. Virginia was a thoroughly Democratic state — wall-to-wall, from every courthouse and city hall to Capitol Square. Being Democratic then was the polar opposite of being Democratic today.

That was a Democratic Party with roots in the antebellum South. It had defended slavery and pushed the nation toward the Civil War. In the 100 years after Appomattox, Dixie Democrats resisted Reconstruction and embraced Jim Crow.

In the early 1920s in Virginia, it took form as the political machine founded by and named for Gov. Harry Flood Byrd. The racist excesses of that time stagger the conscience. Poll taxes. Voter literacy tests. Dr. Walter Plecker’s discredited eugenics that informed Hitler’s genocide against Europe’s Jews and his futile quest for a “master race” of Aryan übermenschen. And there was Massive Resistance, Virginia’s orchestrated defiance to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed racially segregated public education in the United States.

During the Kennedy presidency, the Democratic Party began its leftward arc and its hold on Virginia (and the South) began to slip. The cynical Republican “Southern strategy,” first attempted by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and perfected four years later by Richard Nixon, shifted the South, including Virginia, from a Democratic stronghold to reliably Republican in 1968. The commonwealth voted Republican in 10 consecutive presidential elections, ending with Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.

In 1969, Linwood Holton, a social progressive who at last broke the back of segregation in Virginia, became its first elected Republican governor. Since then, partisan control of the governor’s office has changed hands half a dozen times, but neither party has held it for more than three consecutive terms.

The General Assembly gradually transitioned from Democratic dominance through the 1980s to an even split and power sharing during the mid- to late ’90s before the GOP achieved hegemony in 1999, adding majorities in both legislative chambers to complement Gov. Jim Gilmore’s governorship. It was an enormous milestone for legislative Republicans, who once could have caucused in a broom closet.

It took the Democrats 20 years to climb back to total control of the legislative and executive branches of state government in the 2019 election – and just two years to lose it.

During that Democratic biennium, numerous liberal reforms became law. Virginia became the only Southern state to abolish the death penalty. Limited recreational use of marijuana became legal. The Republican voter photo ID law was scrapped, and no-excuse early and absentee voting were enacted. New restrictions were passed on gun ownership, including an end to bartering or selling firearms at gun shows without purchaser background checks and a “red flag law” that bans gun possession by those ruled a risk to themselves or others by a court.  

We’re a deep purple Goldilocks state — preferring our politics not too left, not too right — and have been for more than 50 years.

– Bob Lewis

By the 2021 election, a Virginia electorate – shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, tiring of new President Joe Biden and sensing that Democrats in Richmond had gone too far too fast – handed the House majority back to the GOP and elected Republicans to the top three statewide offices, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Over the course of this year, Youngkin made a determined effort to win full legislative control and open the spillway for a flood of conservative priorities the hungry Republican base had wanted for more than 10 years. That included tightening the window for having abortions from 26 weeks of pregnancy to 15 with exceptions for victims of rape and incest and to protect the mother’s life.

Evidently, too far too fast. Again. 

That’s the hazard of one-party control now, as moderates in both parties exit – either through retirement or primary losses to challengers farther from the political center – and legislators forsake compromise to push more ideologically-driven agendas.

Tuesday’s election was a thunderous rebuke to Republicans nationally after a conservative Supreme Court in June 2022 struck down the Roe v. Wade decision that had kept abortions legal since 1973. The court effectively pushed abortion policy back to the nation’s 50 statehouses, and this week’s results left no doubt about voters’ enmity toward the ruling.

Ohioans overwhelmingly approved a referendum guaranteeing abortion rights in state law. In Kentucky, a Democratic governor who had pushed back against the state’s strict abortion laws was easily reelected.

Because of its divided government, Virginia is the only Southern state that hasn’t imposed stringent limits on abortions, some of them amounting to de facto bans. Youngkin and his party saw the opportunity to follow suit.

Youngkin had masterfully disarmed moderate to Democratic-leaning suburbanites in winning the governor’s race two years earlier. He leveraged pandemic disruptions to public education and marginalized roles of parents in their children’s schools as resonant kitchen table issues in a campaign that showed Republicans how to overcome former President Donald Trump’s toxic legacy and blaze a new path to victory in a state Democrats had owned.

He believed he had struck gold again with his 15-week abortion proposal, something he saw as a compromise that could counter Democrats’ attacks on the visceral reproductive rights argument. Even more, he hoped, the strategy could allow Republican legislative candidates to turn the tables and position Democrats as extremists for supporting longer intervals for legal abortions. Youngkin’s PAC, Spirit of Virginia, crushed gubernatorial fundraising records and poured more than $15 million behind GOP candidates by October’s end, including a late $1.4 million ad blitz touting his abortion plan.

You have to bet big to win big. Or lose big. And Youngkin lost. Big.

When the precincts reported and the numbers were crunched, not only did the Senate remain in Democratic hands, Republicans had also lost control of the House — after just two years.

So for at least the next few years, a diminished Youngkin will propose and the Democratic legislature will dispose. Each will frustrate and obstruct the other. The adversarial process will assure a Goldilocks outcome, preventing passage of anything too left or too right.

And, as Virginians made clear on Tuesday, we’re OK with that.

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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]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]