Stay in the Game!

After a long illness last week saw the passing of former Democratic Congressman James Olin of Virginia (see title link for WaPo obit). His death is cause to pause and reflect on the career of a well respected public servant. It is also cause to pause and reflect on what can happen when a political party splinters and fails to pull behind a candidate. At a time when both parties seem intent on splintering on rocks of internal dissent it is a lesson worth remembering.

The Sixth District of Virginia has long been the Roanoke Congressional district. Long anchored in Roanoke, the district has changed shapes and now reaches up the Shenandoah Valley and includes all or part of the western shelf of highland Virginia counties (Alleghany, Bath, and Highland) and stretches east to pick up Lynchburg and Amherst County.

Republican Richard Poff won the Virginia Sixth district seat in 1956, the first Republican since Reconstruction to do so. Poff was followed by M. Caldwell Butler in 1973. Butler announced his retirement from the US House of Representatives prior to the 1982 elections, and a raft of republican candidates lined up. They included State Senator Ray Garland (Roanoke), Walter Potter (publisher from Lynchburg), J.T. Banton (Just retired Executive Director of the Virginia Jaycees, Lynchburg) and Delegate Kevin Miller, from Harrisonburg. Miller was certainly the new kid on the block, as Rockingham Country and the City of Harrisonburg joined the Sixth district after the 1980 census.

This was the time of contentious GOP conventions, weekend long brawls where different party factions slugged it out on the convention floor and-more often than not-in the parking lot afterwards. Generally the wounds cut so deep that the partisans of the losing candidate would sit on their hands in the general…but typically it was over a matter of ideology. But the 1982 6th district race followed a different path.

The GOP hopefuls rolled their RV headquarters into the August Expoland exposition center in June 1982 to do battle. They battled for four ballots, and Ray Garland led on all but the last. Garland’s pugnacious eloquence and unwillingness to hoe a strict conservative line, especially on abortion issues, made him unacceptable to conservatives. Some still remembered his somewhat quixotic senate candidacy in 1970 against Harry Byrd, Jr. It all made for just enough reasons to give the nomination by a narrow margin to Kevin Miller.

At the same time, in a much less fiery gathering, the Democrats nominated a little known retired General Electric executive named James Olin of Roanoke to carry their banner into the 1982 mid-term elections.

The 1982 elections were held in the midst of a recession and a backlash against “Reaganomics”. Several areas of the Sixth were hit hard, including the shuttering of factories in Lynchburg. In a hard fought but collegial race, the political newcomer from Roanoke beat the geographical newcomer from Harrisonburg to become the first democrat in a quarter century to hold the seat.

Nothing new here…the incumbent party loses a race in bad economic times. However, there is more to the tale…

Garland’s loss at the convention infuriated many Roanoke GOP members, who considered the seat to be a Roanoke birthright. Members of the Roanoke business community who found comfort in having a congressman in their hometown were also not pleased. Result? Much of the GOP leadership in the south end of the district sat out the race. They would not help with GOTV, they would not help with fundraising. They were sure their man Garland could beat Olin in 1984 with President Reagan running for reelection…and Kevin Miller lost the election by just over 1,000 votes.

Ray Garland got his shot in 1984, receiving the nomination unopposed, and entered the general with so much going for him. He addressed the GOP convention in one of those early day slots used to highlight candidates. He ran on a ticket with Ronald Reagan, who crushed Walter Mondale in Virginia. He ran on a ticket with John Warner, who crushed his little known opponent. With all this going for him, plus a unified GOP, Ray Garland lost to Jim Olin 52% to 48%, and receded into obscurity.

Olin held the seat until he retired in 1992, when the seat went to Republican Bob Goodlatte, who has held it since.

The 1982 election is only a small picture in the electoral history of this country. Many philosophical lessons can be drawn from this episode, from the fragile egos of humans to the fragile nature of human fortune. I remember it as a time when members of a political party split over selfish matters, and allowed a seat to slip to the other side. I also offer it as a cursory warning as to the dangers of assumption, pride, and a failure to work for the common good in any political season.

At a time when Democrats and Republicans in the USA are bent on focusing on the differences between segments within the party, with catastrophic results for their nominees in ensuing elections, it seems a good time to remember that it is difficult in any competitive realm to win unless you field a full team.

Whatever your political stripe-remember to stay in the game.

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