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Governor Tim Kaine with former U.S. Senator John Warner and former Senator and Governor George Allen, and former Representative Thelma Drake.

The politics of Virginia reflect a state that is beginning to experience a conflict between its increasingly liberal northern region and its traditionally conservative southern region. Since the 1970s, Virginia has moved away from a racially divided single-party state.[1] Although traditionally conservative and historically part of the South, modern Virginia is a politically competitive state for both major national parties.



Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. ran the important Byrd Organization until the 1960s.

After the American Civil War (1861-1865), Virginia was in political turmoil. 48 former counties now in West Virginia were gone, soon to be joined by two more. Although the Commonwealth of Virginia unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, these 50 counties joined the earlier Lost counties of Virginia. In the remaining area, many citizens, mostly males of African American heritage, were newly enfranchised to vote. Many others, primarily former Confederates, were initially disenfranchised.

Elections resumed after 5 years as U.S. Military District, and control was chaotic. In the late 1870s, a coalition of Conservative Democrats, Republicans and African Americans was assembled and the Readjuster Party took power for about 10 years.

After U.S. Senator William Mahone and the Readjuster Party lost control of Virginia politics around 1883, white Democrats regained the state legislature. They proceeded to use statute and a new constitution in 1901, with provisions such as a poll tax, residency requirements, and literacy test to disfranchise most African Americans and many poor whites. Their disfranchisement lasted until after passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.

White Democrats created a one-party state, with a nearly unchallenged majority of state and most federal offices through the middle of the 20th century. The Byrd Organization headed by Harry F. Byrd Sr. largely controlled statewide politics. Through their leadership and activism in the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans gained national support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided Federal oversight and enforcement to maintain all citizens' ability to vote.

Like most former Confederate states, Virginia became increasingly friendly to Republicans in the 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson's and national Democrats' support for civil rights turned many conservative whites in Virginia against the Democrats. However, many Virginians had been willing to support Republicans, at least at the national level, since the 1930s due to Franklin Roosevelt's strong support for organized labor. While the Republican Party in most of the South tended to attract right-wing conservatives like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, Virginia's GOP has tended to be more moderate by regional standards. The state elected moderate Republican A. Linwood Holton Jr. in 1970; Holton became the first Republican governor in the 20th century, effectively ending the influence of the Byrd Organization. Holton was succeeded by two other Republican governors: the more conservative Mills Godwin (a former Democrat) and Jim Gilmore. Five-term U.S. Senator John Warner and Congressman Tom Davis also exemplified the more "moderate-conservative" tendencies of Virginia Republicans. From 1982 through 1994, Democrats served as Governor, with Chuck Robb elected in 1981 and Gerald L. Baliles in 1985. In 1989, Virginia elected Democrat Douglas Wilder governor, who served from 1990-1994, as Virginia's first African-American Governor. In 2001, Virginia elected Democrats Mark Warner as Governor and Tim Kaine as Lt. Governor, and Kaine was elected to succeed Warner as Governor in 2005.

Virginia voted for Republicans in nearly every presidential election since 1952 except for the Democratic landslide in President Johnson's election in 1964 and Barack Obama's victory in 2008. Virginia's former streak of voting for Republicans in ten consecutive presidential elections (1968-2004), started when Richard Nixon began the Southern Strategy, is the longest among the former Confederate States. Virginia was the only such state to vote for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Congressional representation

Congressional representation of Virginia as of the 111th United States Congress, with seats held by Republicans in red and Democrats in blue.

Jim Webb and Mark Warner, both Democrats, are Virginia's senators. In Northern Virginia, the sole Democratic district was the 8th congressional district represented by Jim Moran while the other two districts in Northern Virginia are the Republican leaning districts of the 11th congressional district represented by Gerry Connolly and the 10th congressional district represented by Frank Wolf. The predominately African American and thus Democratic controlled 3rd congressional district, which is represented by Robert C. Scott, stretches from the Richmond metropolitan area to Hampton Roads. Democrat Rick Boucher represents Virginia's 9th Congressional district which spans the whole western end of the state beyond Montgomery County. He's represented the district for thirteen terms. Republicans hold the remaining Congressional seats. On October 6, 2007, Jo Ann Davis representing Virginia's 1st congressional district died; the seat was filled by Rob Wittman after a very brief campaign for the special election.

In the 2008 General Election for the 2nd congressional district, Democrat Glenn Nye unseated incumbent Thelma Drake and in the 5th congressional district, Virgil Goode, who was originally elected to the House as a Democrat, but later became a Republican was defeated in a close election by Democrat Tom Perriello. The Virginia State Board of Elections certified that Goode lost his 2008 bid for reelection by 745 votes (0.24% of over 316,000 votes cast)[2]. This leaves Democrats with two senate seats and six house seats and Republicans with five house seats.


Voters do not register by party in Virginia, and Virginia conducts "open primaries" where any voter may cast a ballot for either party. In general elections, the party affiliations of local candidates do not appear on the ballot. Candidates for federal, statewide, and General Assembly offices appear on the ballot with party designations.[3]

Besides the Democratic Party of Virginia and the Republican Party of Virginia, other parties include the Libertarian Party of Virginia and the Independent Greens. Third parties and independents have benefited from electoral reform in Virginia, especially streamlined ballot access, and have made their presence known by appearing on statewide ballots and even winning seats to soil and water conservation district boards.

Recent events

Barack Obama campaigns in Virginia Beach. Virginia voted for a democrat for the first time in ten cycles.

In 1989, Doug Wilder was the first African-American man elected Governor of a U.S. state. Despite Virginia's support of Republican presidential candidates and reputation as a conservative state, voters elected Democratic candidates for three consecutive gubernatorial races in the 1980s. In addition, Democratic representatives maintained large majorities in both houses of the Virginia General Assembly. Many Democratic state representatives from rural and suburban districts had conservative stances on various issues.

In the 1990s Virginia experienced some political realignment, electing conservative Republicans George Allen and Jim Gilmore to the Governorship from 1994 until 2002. Jim Gilmore's "no car tax" pledge was emblazoned on bumper stickers and yard signs across the state. Republicans captured both houses of the General Assembly and built majorities. Republican representatives replaced Conservative and moderate Democrats from rural and suburban areas. Within the Republican party, more conservative office holders supplanted the remnants of the less conservative "mountain-valley" faction of Holton, so named because many members were from the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia.

After eight years of Republican governorships, in 2001, Mark Warner, a progressive businessman, won the governorship and confronted budget difficulties related to the recession by cutting money from all state departments. Virginia's executive branch is limited by the fact that governors are only allowed one term, a constitutional provision that distinguishes Virginia from any other state. After decades of Democratic rule in the Virginia General Assembly, Republicans took control around the turn of the 21st century and promptly redistricted to protect their incumbents. In 2005 Tim Kaine, Warner's lieutenant governor, won the governor's office over Jerry Kilgore and "independent Republican" state senator Russ Potts.

In 2006, Jim Webb narrowly defeated George Felix Allen in the wake of the Macaca slur incident. The electorate's reaction to Allen's gaffe demonstrated the changing sensibilities of the region's citizens; prior to that, Allen had a double-digit lead in the polls.[4] In 2007, Virginia driver fees legislation created a political uproar when residents realized that they faced $3,000 fines for certain moving violations. An online petition quickly gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, spurring legislators up for re-election that November to reconsider their positions. This was the first time that the Internet played such a dramatic role in influencing Virginia politics[5]. In 2007, the Democrats regained control of the State Senate, and narrowed the Republican majority in the House of Delegates to 7 or 8 votes.[6]

Virginia voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, after backing Republican candidates for the previous ten presidential elections.[7] Virginia may be considered a "swing state" for future presidential elections.[8] Its margin for Obama of 6.3% made it the closest indicator of the national vote (a 7.2% Obama margin) of any state.

In the November 2009 general election Republican Bob McDonnell won the governorship by an 18% margin, while Republican Lt. Governor and Attorney General candidates Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli also won their respective races. [8] They led statewide gains by the Republican party winning five additional seats in the House of Delegates.[8]

Regional differences

2006 Senatorial election majority results by county, with George Allen in red and Jim Webb in blue.

Northern Virginia, Fairfax County in particular, has begun to favor Democratic candidates in recent elections. This is likely due to the large migration of people from the liberal Northeastern states into the Washington Metropolitan Area (which includes Northern Virginia) as well as an increase in the minority population especially Latinos and Asians. John Kerry won Fairfax County, long a Republican stronghold, by a slim 2.4% and generally fared better in the rest of Northern Virginia than Al Gore did in 2000. Despite this improvement however, he still lost every other county with the exception of Arlington County in the Northern Virginia region in the 2004 election. In contrast to the changing voting trend in Northern Virginia, the majority of the rest of Virginia is still strongly supportive of the Republican Party. Some portions of the state like college towns and the southeastern counties in the Black Belt Region are more likely to vote Democratic though.

In 2005 and 2006, Democrats Tim Kaine (running for Governor) and Jim Webb (in a race for Senator) won nearly all jurisdictions within the Northern Virginia region. Alexandria resident Mark Warner had not won so many jurisdictions when winning the governorship in 2001. By contrast, Warner performed comparatively strongly in rural areas, particularly Southwest Virginia. His campaign had stressed respect for rural cultural values (such as gun rights) and strategies for economic development.

In the state's largest city, Virginia Beach (pop. 450,000), most elected officials are Republicans. However, most elected officials in the state's most populous county, Fairfax County (pop. 1,250,000), are Democrats. The Republican Party's strongholds are in the counties of Southwest Virginia, exurban Northern Virginia counties like Stafford, and Richmond suburbs like Hanover County. Democrats are dominant in the inner suburbs of Northern Virginia, the city of Charlottesville and its suburbs in Albemarle County, and the city of Richmond. The three most significant "swing districts" are Loudoun and Prince William counties in Northern Virginia and James City County in Hampton Roads. All three of these "swing" counties voted for President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and are represented by Republicans in Congress, but have expressed a willingness to vote for Democratic candidates on a semi-regular basis as all three counties were carried by Tim Kaine and Jim Webb. Loudon and Prince William have both seen Democrats gain formerly Republican-held seats in the General Assembly.


Dozens of Delegates run unopposed each election cycle, which led 2001 Libertarian gubernatorial candidate and current national LP chair Bill Redpath to conclude that "Virginia has a democracy that is uncompetitive and boring."[9] A proposal was made to shake up the system by replacing the 40 single-member state Senate districts with 10 4-member at-large districts, which could allow a mix of urban Republicans and rural Democrats, as opposed to the urban Democrats and rural Republicans typically elected by the current system; this could also make it easier for an occasional independent or third-party candidate to win election. In 2007, Democrats regained control of the Virginia Senate.[10]

Statewide referenda

In 2006, a statewide referendum on the Marshall-Newman Amendment added a provision to the Bill of Rights of the Virginia Constitution banning gay marriage; it passed with 57% of the vote.

Voting rights

In 2009, Governor Tim Kaine proposed to authorize no-excuse early voting in Virginia elections, noting that 26 other states allow it.[11] On January 26, 2009, the bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate.[12] However, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates killed the proposal.

Governor Tim Kaine worked with a coalition of civic groups to work to restore the voting rights of felons who were convicted of non-violent crimes in the past. Kaine's staff reviews each individual application from felons who have been out of prison for at least five years without an additional conviction. An estimated 300,000 Virginia citizens are not allowed to vote due to a prior felony conviction.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Sweeney, James R. (1999). ""Sheep without a Shepherd": The New Deal Faction in the Virginia Democratic Party". Presidential Studies Quarterly 29: 438. doi:10.1111/1741-5705.00043. Retrieved 2008-03-31.  
  2. ^ "Virginia GOP Rep. Goode Defeated in Late-Decided Election". Associated Press (Fox News). November 24, 2008.  
  3. ^ Va. Code § 24.2-613
  4. ^ "Allen's Listening Tour". YouTube. 2006-08-14. Retrieved 2006-08-15.  
  5. ^ Va. Driver Fees Now Election Weapon, Tim Craig, The Washington Post, July 17, 2007.
  6. ^ Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  7. ^ Lewis, Bob (November 5, 2008). "Obama first Democrat to take Virginia in 44 years". Associated Press (Fox News).,4670,ElectionVirginia,00.html. Retrieved 2009-01-09.  
  8. ^ a b c Balz, Dan (October 12, 2007). "Painting America Purple". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-11-24.  
  9. ^ Bill Redpath, Libertarian Candidate for Virginia Governor, The Washington Post, Oct. 12, 2001.
  10. ^ Kaine Hails 'Balance' in New Political Landscape, Tim Craig and Anita Kumar, The Washington Post, November 8, 2007.
  11. ^ Retrieved 2009-02-08.
  12. ^ Walker, Julian (January 26, 2009). "Virginia Senate approves no-excuse absentee voting". Virginia Pilot. Retrieved 2009-02-08.  
  13. ^ Craig, Tim (June 17, 2008). "Groups Push to Restore Va. Felons' Voting Rights". Washington Post: p. B01. Retrieved 2009-02-08.  

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