The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When Virginia flipped to Republicans 70 years ago, the state’s most powerful Democrat was to thank

Sen. Harry Flood Byrd (D-Va.) poses at his cartoon-bedecked Capitol office in D.C. on June 10, 1959. (AP)
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As polls show next month’s Virginia governor’s race heading to a photo finish, Republicans are harboring hopes of flipping the increasingly blue state to red. Virginia hasn’t picked a GOP governor since 2010 or presidential candidate since 2004.

The state was in a similar position nearly 70 years ago when it cast its electoral votes for Dwight D. Eisenhower after not having chosen a Republican presidential candidate for the last five elections (or a GOP governor in the last 20 elections) — thanks to the unlikely help of Virginia’s “Mr. Democrat,” the powerful Sen. Harry Flood Byrd.

Byrd didn’t campaign openly for Eisenhower. Instead, he refrained from uttering a word about the Republican while criticizing fellow Democrat Adlai Stevenson as too liberal. Byrd’s tacit message to his followers was clear: He liked Ike. Several years later, Byrd noted in a speech, “I have found at times that silence is golden.”

Now, former president Donald Trump is trying to use his influence to help flip Virginia red in the gubernatorial race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe to succeed Democrat Ralph Northam. McAuliffe is seeking to become the first governor to win two nonconsecutive terms since 1973, when former Democratic governor Mills Godwin epitomized the state’s shift to the GOP by recapturing the governor’s mansion as a Republican. Like Byrd in 1952, Trump is trying to play kingmaker in Virginia, though he’s far from silent. He has paired his praise for Youngkin with loud false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Whether Trump’s rhetoric will help or hurt remains to be seen.

But in 1952, the Byrd factor was obvious. The “Byrd organization” controlled Virginia politics after Byrd’s nearly three decades as governor and senator. The staunch conservative was a leader in the Democratic Solid South led by “Dixiecrats” who supported racial segregation in the guise of states' rights.

Byrd, a former newspaper publisher, was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat in 1933 as a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Virginian soon turned against FDR’s big-spending New Deal programs. Then he helped block so many of President Harry S. Truman’s proposals that Truman complained there were “too many Byrds in Congress.”

Despite their political differences, the two men remained friends, Byrd said in a 1963 speech. They had been deskmates in the Senate, he said, and still exchanged letters that began “Dear Harry.”

After Democrats nominated Stevenson in 1952, Byrd held his tongue. Finally, on Oct. 17, he made a much-anticipated statewide radio speech from Winchester, Va., near his home in Berryville, where he owned a commercial apple orchard. He declared that he “will not, and cannot in good conscience,” endorse the Democratic ticket. “Endorsement means to recommend, and this I cannot do.”

Byrd said the campaign’s dominant issue was Stevenson’s embrace of “Trumanism,” which he defined as “a definite and precise trend towards socialism and away from the free enterprise system.” (The racist Byrd didn’t mention his opposition to Truman’s desegregation of the military and actions against racial discrimination in the federal workplace.)

A few Virginia Democrats denounced Byrd’s speech as political treason. Vice President Alben Barkley, without saying Byrd’s name, said, “I cannot but compare the man who says he is a Democrat but is going to vote the Republican ticket this year with the woman who keeps her husband’s name but bestows her favors on the man across the street.”

In his radio speech, Byrd never mentioned Eisenhower or said for whom he planned to vote. He said it wasn’t his duty “to urge the people to vote for any candidate.”

It was a shrewd strategy. One week later, the New York Times reported that Eisenhower had overtaken Stevenson in polls of Virginia voters, “with allegiance to Byrd a big factor.” The way Byrd broke his silence “was calculated to achieve and apparently did achieve the maximum possible assistance to the Eisenhower ticket,” the Times wrote. “An outright endorsement of the General, which Mr. Byrd avoided … might have hardened Virginia’s traditional Democratic sympathies.”

Ike also got the message. Campaigning in Richmond, he noted the support of “Byrd Democrats for Eisenhower.” The general saluted the Virginia Democrat, saying, “Any party that could produce a man like Harry Byrd is a top-flight outfit.”

An Eisenhower adviser predicted, “If Sen. Harry Byrd stays on the sidelines and goes on picking apples, Virginia is ours,” the Associated Press reported.

As election night returns came in, railroad magnate Harold S. Vanderbilt phoned Eisenhower. According to an account of the conversation in a research paper by James R. Sweeney, a history professor at Old Dominion University, Vanderbilt said, “General, I have just had Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia on the phone, and he told me that, in his opinion, Virginia was in the bag, and he asked me to tell you how glad he was.” Ike replied, “That man is a wonderful guy, isn’t he?”

When Eisenhower won the election, the press credited Byrd for the first victory in Virginia by a Republican presidential candidate since Herbert Hoover. The “supreme head” of Virginia Democrats “determined the issue by announcing he could not support the Democratic nominee,” wrote Arthur Krock in the Times.

Byrd called Eisenhower’s election “a ray of hope” that federal power might be curbed, but he soon opposed the president’s spending and civil rights policies. After the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in schools, Byrd led Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” to school integration.

The senator was elected to a sixth term in 1964. He retired in late 1965 for health reasons and was succeeded by his son “Young Harry” F. Byrd Jr., who served as an independent until 1983. The senior Byrd died in 1966 at age 79.

Republicans took over Virginia’s governorship in 1969, with Linwood Holton and then second-termer Godwin. Meanwhile, beginning with Eisenhower, Republicans had a lock on the state’s presidential vote, winning all but one of the next 14 contests.

But in recent years, a new generation of moderate to liberal Democrats has gained power. Since 2013, both of Virginia’s senators have been Democrats. The Democrats have controlled the state house since 2014. And in presidential elections, Democrats have widened their advantage, with Joe Biden winning by 10 points in 2020.

Currently, polls show McAuliffe and Youngkin in a virtual tie. The only certainty in the closing days of the campaign is that there won’t be a golden silence.

Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.