Southern Strategies

By Sweeney, James R. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Southern Strategies


Sweeney, James R., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The 1970 Election for the United States Senate in Virginia by JAMES R. SWEENEY*

WHILE feminists marched in protest outside the Statler Hilton on the evening of 14 March 1970, President Richard M. Nixon, Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, and Virginia's senior senator, Harry F. Byrd, Jr., attended the men-only annual banquet of the exclusive Gridiron Club, a group of fifty of Washington's most prominent male newspaper correspondents. The 500 guests enjoyed an evening of off-the-record speeches, satirical musical skits, and quite unexpected piano duets by Nixon and Agnew that "stole the show." As he was leaving, the president stopped at Senator Byrd's table and said, "Harry, I think it's about time for us to discuss Okinawa." Those who overheard assumed that Nixon was referring to the administration's plan to give the island of Okinawa back to Japan, a proposal that Byrd opposed. In fact, Nixon was talking about Byrd's possible switch from the Democratic to the Republican party. "Okinawa" was the code word both men had agreed to use when referring to this potential political bombshell.l The mere possibility of Byrd's joining the GOP in 1970 was indicative of the unsettled state of Virginia politics.

The presidency of Richard Nixon coincided with a major transition in Virginia's political history. By 1969, the long-dominant conservative Democratic faction led by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., had disintegrated after a decade of political turbulence that began with the collapse of the Byrddesigned plan of massive resistance to school desegregation. The national Democratic party had moved to the left with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and antipoverty legislation. Beginning in 1962 with the Baker v. Carr decision, the United States Supreme Court undermined the controlling influence of rural areas in the apportionment of state legislatures. The Byrd faction, which derived its power from rural areas and a restricted electorate, lost influence as Virginia became more urban and as the federal government struck down such barriers to voting as the poll tax and literacy tests. As the Byrd Organization declined in the mid-1960s, the Virginia Democratic party fragmented into three factions: conservatives, who remained loyal to Byrd; moderates, who sought to replace the older leaders with younger and more flexible men; and a liberal faction, led by state senator Henry E. Howell, Jr., of Norfolk, which appealed especially to blacks and organized labor. The first electoral consequences of the upheaval were the defeats of Organization stalwarts Senator A. Willis Robertson and Congressman Howard W. Smith in the Democratic primaries of 1966.2

Virginia Republicans viewed these changes as an opportunity to displace the Byrd regime and bring two-party competition to the Old Dominion for the first time in the twentieth century. More than an interested observer, Richard Nixon participated in efforts to build the Republican party in Virginia. Yet the president's involvement in the 1969 gubernatorial and the 1970 senatorial elections did not produce the results he sought. His so-called southern strategy came into conflict with those of A. Linwood Holton, Jr., the Republican party's successful gubernatorial candidate in 1969, and Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr., who succeeded his father in the Senate in 1965.

Nixon was very much aware of what J. Harvie Wilkinson III called "the changing face of Virginia politics."3 Although Virginia was considered a one-party, Democratic state, presidential Republicanism flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. Only Barry M. Goldwater in 1964 failed to win the commonwealth's twelve electoral votes for the Republicans. In 1968 Nixon carried the Old Dominion by nearly 150,000 votes, and Virginia Republicans reached parity with the Democrats in the state's delegation in the House of Representatives. The Democrats, however, retained both United States Senate seats as well as the governorship and other state offices. …

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