Twenty year ago, before Harry Flood Byrd's Democratic machine stripped its gears, Chuck Robb would have had no need to visit this rural, Southside county in search of votes. In those days a Democrat got beat by a Republican about as often as a poodle caught a raccoon.
But last week when Robb, the Democratic candidate for governor, toured this county of tobacco farms, factory towns and bad roads 180 miles southwest of Washington he was stumping in enemy territory.
Because Robb picked Wednesday afternoon to stop off in the county's only two incorporated towns, a time when small Southern towns traditionally close down for a midweek nap, he didn't meet many friends or foes on Main Street. The son-in-law of the father of the Great Society didn't need to be told he was not universally loved in Lunenburg.
"Anybody who is kin to Lyndon Johnson I don't have much respect for," said Earl Taylor over coffee with a dozen of the county's influential citizens. Taylor was one of five former members of the county's Democratic committee who resigned in 1964 rather than pledge support for Johnson.
To Taylor, and many of the old line conservatives who still dominate politics in here in Southside Virginia, the Democratic party took leave of its political sense in the '60s when it endorsed liberalism, civil rights and social welfare programs.
"We didn't leave the Democratic party, it left us," said W. Roy Moore, the 74-year-old county clerk for Lunenburg who ascended to political power during the Byrd era and has remained inside the 147-year-old, Jeffersonian courthouse ever since by keeping a finger to the changing political winds. "I'd say I'm more independent than I am a Democrat," said Moore, his watery blue eyes twinkling behind thick, rimless glasses.
It is no small irony that the candidate Virginia Democrats have picked to win back the heart of their countryside, where bedrock conservatism is as much a religious as a political conviction, is the same man who married Lynda Bird Johnson. It is no less ironic tht Robb appears to be leading his Republian opponent, J. Marshall Coleman, who professes the same conservative credentials.
"I think Chuck has impressed a lot of independents down here," says Watkins M. Abbitt, Jr. who was the region's Democratic representative for 24 years and headed the state's Democratic party when Byrd conservatives controlled it. Abbitt, who like more than 100 others, paid $10 to attend this week's combination fundraiser, skeet shoot and barbecue for Robb, concedes that for much of the last decade he has been voting for Republicans.
Robb's political strategy in Lunenburg is being mirrored in other rural and suburban areas of the state, where Republicans have made dramatic gains in the last decade. Robb and Coleman seem to be trying to gain a political foothold to the right of each other. In Lunenburg, which does not have its own hospital or movie theater, where there is more unemployment and less per capita income than the state average, Robb's stratgy may be working.
In the process of wooing old-time delegates back to the Democratic faith, however, Robb has alienated some of the black and liberal supporters who have supported Democrats for the last 20 years. The Fifth Congressional District Voters League, a black political organization, has announced that it will field write-in canddidates for the three statewide races this fall.
Moore, who was once part of a network of county clerks the Byrd machine depended on to keep local control of the state, blames blacks for splitting the Democratic party in the last two decades. "Years ago the Negro didn't vote," said Moore, lowering his voice and popping a sugar candy into his mouth. "Now they vote in a block, for ultraliberal things. That has driven a lot of the old Democrats out of the party."
There is little evidence of black politicial power in Lunenburg. Although blacks make up 40 percent of the county's 12,124 residents there are no blacks in public offices.
"We run somebody every time and every time he gets beat," says Russell L. Callahan, 45, who works in a state liquor store in Kenbridge and claims to be able to deliver the black vote in his Beaver Creek precinct, which is 51 percent black.
For a rural county of its size, Lunenburg has an impressive amount of light industry. There are factories that make buttons, zippers, woodden ax handles, shoes, coats and synthetic marble. There are also three lumber mills, a charcoal plant and a furniture factory in Lunenburg. But most of the work is for unskilled laborers and much of the pay is minimum wage.
"It is sometimes hard to make a living here, but it is the perfect place to live," says Taylor, the former owner of the ax handle factory in Kenbridge. Each weekday morning Taylor and a dozen other men, most of them gray at the temples and long in the political tooth,, come to the Hickory House Restaurant in Kenbridge to trade gossip and tall tales.
Democrats, Republicans and independents, they all share political conservatism and a disdain for welfare cheats and federal giveaways. In Lunenburg, they practice what they preach.
"Most counties are pretty fierce in competition for true in Lunenburg" says Jack Houghton, who works for the state planning district which includes Lunenburg and six other Southside counties. "The county is very, very conservative."
Some residents periodically complain to the county board that its consrvatism has cost the county millions of dollars in federal funds to bulid a hospital or recreation facilities. The most frequent gripe given the five-member board is the condition of the county's roads.
"Our roads have really hurt us trying to attract new industry," says W. Roland Walker, an official with the Kenbridge industrial development authority. There are only three primary roads in the county and residents regularly complaint that the secondary roads, most of them dirt, are unsuited fro any vehcile short of a Jeep.
But during Robb's three hour tour of the county, road conditions were not a topic of discussion. In Kenbridge and Victoria, there were so few hands to shake it appeared the towns had been cleard by an airraid siren. Bu the time Robb got to the skeet shoot and barbecue, which more than 100 attended, he seemed genuinely happy to be in a crowd even if many of them were holding shotguns.
Robb knows first hand about the schizophrenic voting habits of Lunenburg. While the 5th District it is in last year elected Virginia's only Democratic congressman, it was also the only district which Robb didn't carry during his 1977 election as lieutenant governor.
When one man at the barbecue described himself to Robb as a lifetime Democrat, Robb seemed ready to lift him in a bear hug.
"You never have to worry about your conscience when you sleep at night," replied the Democratic candidate.