About this time of year in 1966 I wrote a letter to my hometown newspaper, The Page News and Courier, suggesting that Virginia had just undergone one of the “bloodless revolutions” that Thomas Jefferson had suggested would be good for society periodically. In the Democratic primary in a very different 8th Congressional District than we know today, liberal state delegate George Rawlings defeated the 36-year veteran Congressman Howard Smith who in his position as chairman of the Rules Committee had thwarted the will of presidents through his control of the flow of legislation and his bottling up of the Civil Rights Act for nearly a decade. The shock waves when the polling results came in were as great as those heard in the 7th Congressional District this year.
As if the defeat of a powerful committee chair was not enough, in that same primary moderate State Senator William B. Spong, Jr. defeated Virginia’s Senator A. Willis Robertson who had been in the Senate for 20 years. President Lyndon Johnson had recruited Spong to challenge Robertson because the Senator opposed the Civil Rights Act and supported school segregation. When Lady Bird Johnson came through Virginia campaigning for her husband on the Lady Bird Special train, Robertson was the only elected Democrat who did not come out to greet her.
George Rawlings lost in the general election to William “Bill” Scott as conservative Southern Democrats voted for the Republican, and many never returned to the Democratic Party. Spong was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served for one term before being defeated by the same Bill Scott who had defeated Rawlings six years before. Scott’s service in the House and in the Senate earned him the title given by one publication as being “the dumbest man” in Congress.
The primary defeats of two Southern Democrats in 1966 marked a sharp decline of influence of the Byrd Machine in Virginia politics and a realignment of the conservatives who had called themselves Democrats since Reconstruction. Some became Independents, but others switched to the Republican Party where they felt more at home with their conservatism. When Harry Byrd, Jr. ran for the U.S. Senate to replace his father, he won as an Independent. No Democratic candidate for President was able to carry Virginia until ironically Barack Obama carried the state in 2008.
While Democrats and moderate Republicans are celebrating the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in another historic primary, it is important to consider the outcome of the election for the future of the Commonwealth. The candidate who defeated Cantor did so by being more conservative than Cantor, and from the comments I have been reading he is a far-out Tea Party candidate. Just last year two Tea Party candidates defeated two Republican committee chairs in primaries and went on to win the general election. An already conservative General Assembly is likely to be pushed further to the right by Republicans who fear a primary challenge. A bloodless revolution is occurring in the Commonwealth; Virginians will not be better for it.