Everyone is girding their loins for what they think will be a battle royale next year in the Virginia Senate race, which will be the first time Virginia has had an open seat senate election since 1982.
But as I puttered around the yard this past weekend, it occured to me that there is no other possible course-folks have forgotten over Warner’s lengthy tenure that this seat is the one that historically has been the source of the most acrimony and political struggle…and that is today’s history lesson.
First, let’s backtrack-here is the pedigree of the Warner seat:
Martin, a railroad attorney, was the creator of the predecessor of the Byrd Organization-a/k/a, the “Martin Machine”. He is unjustly lost in the sands of time, and was a political operator of the first degree. He ultimately became senate democratic leader. Martin won the seat over former Governor Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E., in a race that was rumored to be heavily impacted by large bribes paid to members of the General Assembly. Remember, Senators were elected by state legislators until 1913, and the Virginia Democratic Party did not use primaries to select their nominees for statewide office until 1905. Dogged by the allegations of bribery, Martin finally endorsed the use of primaries and established electoral primary in Virginia when he defeated former Governor Andrew Montague in the 1905 Senate primary.
Glass’s ascension was marked by backroom manuevering. Martin died with anti-organization governor Westmoreland Davis. Davis appointed Glass (who had been a Martin foe) to the seat as a first step toward his own Senate candidacy in 1922 against Claude Swanson. But Swanson went to work on Glass, and by 1922 Glass decided to stay out of the fight. Swanson crushed Davis in a primary, Davis claimed near lifelong enmity toward Glass, and Glass (like Governor Pollard in 1929) became a former Organization foe who decided it was better to work with the organization and hold office than to slug it out with them.
Fifth district Congressman Thomas Burch became interim senator up on Glass’s death in 1946, seeing it as the capstone of his congressional career. Harry Byrd favored Colgate Darden for the seat, but Darden had no interest. Congressmen Howard Smith (VA-8) and A. Willis Robertson (VA-7, and father to future televangelist Pat Robertson) both wanted the Democratic nod, but Smith was Byrd’s preference. But in one of those titanic sea changes that sometimes happened under Byrd’s reign, a Democratic convention showed such enthusiasm for the personable Robertson over the dour and hyper conservative Smith that Byrd convinced Smith to withdraw. Robertson became the Senator, and Smith went on to become the King of the House Rules Committee, where he arguably wielded more power than he ever would have experienced as the junior senator from Virginia.
Robertson toiled in Byrd’s shadow for twenty years…and right as he was ready to take his place with a full term as the senior senator from Virginia Robertson was narrowly defeated in the 1966 Democratic primary by state Senator William Spong. Smith was defeated in the VA-8 primary that same year, so the opponents of 1946 were simultaneously retired twenty years later.
Spong created a good record in the Senate, but then got caught up in the wheels of the McGovern debacle in 1972. Virginia was going to go heavily for Nixon, and Spong hoped he could hang on. He was refused to endorse McGovern, and avoided comment on the Presidential race. Late in the campaign while visiting Clinch Valley College (now University), he was asked who he would vote for in the Presidential race. Thinking there was no media around, Spong said he would vote for McGovern. In a precursor to the George Allen Macaca Moment thirty years later, there was a student taping the conversation, the comment was published in the local paper, the news went statewide. Spong was finished, losing to Congressman Bill Scott, who won the Eighth district seat in 1966 but rand for the Senate when he was gerrymandered out of his seat.
Not an intellectual force, Scott served only one term. Along the way New Times magazine named him the “Dumbest Congressman”. His retirement paved the way for the massive GOP state convention in 1978, where Dick Obenshain won a six ballot contest over former Governor Lynwood Holton, state Senator Nathan Miller, and former Secretary of the Navy John Warner. Obenshain was headed into a rematch election with former Virginia Attorney General Andrew Miller, who defeated Obenshain in the 1969 state AG race. Tragically, Obenshain was killed in a plane crash on August 2, 1978. After some very intense and personal politicking, former Governor Mills Godwin declined the nomination and the GOP state central committee turned to Warner. Warner went on to win narrowly in 1978 with a margin that was just outside the level for a mandate recount. Miller in turn did not request a recount as unless the numbers went his way his campaing would have to bear all the administative costs of the effort.
John Warner’s senate term has calmed a seat with a fairly tempetuous electoral past, but early reports suggest that the 2008 campaign is going to live up to the strenuous contests this seat has seen in the past. The GOP negotiations as to whether to go convention or primary will be as intense as the 1922 Glass-Davis discussions..but no matter the path, this seat has seen unusual turns of fortune in all phases of the contest.
It will be interesting, entertaining, and intense. Strap yourself in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…the same as it ever was!
Thus endeth today’s lesson…