Special Column: Can Bolling revive state’s independent streak?
Posted: March 2, 2013
Virginia’s politics reminds me a bit these days of the classic 1949 Cold War film noir, “The Third Man,” written by Graham Greene and starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. Many are looking to the third man, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, to round out the gubernatorial field of Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Like the murder-mystery movie, the race for governor should be a thriller, and by the end, there will be two politically dead candidates on the side of the road.
But who will be left standing? For the answer to that, our story must begin not in 1949, but 1969. With the election of the first Republican governor of the 20th century, Linwood Holton, Virginia began a tumultuous period of party realignment. The Democrats were moving left, away from the conservative Byrd organization that had dominated state politics since the 1920s. The Republicans had not yet decided whether they would be a moderate or a conservative party; Holton was most definitely a moderate but conservatives would soon engineer a takeover.
To everyone’s surprise, and adding to the confusion, Virginia began a brief independent experiment, during which voters broke with both parties in contradictory ideological directions.
U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., who had been appointed to the Senate after his father’s resignation in 1965, had been narrowly renominated in 1966’s Democratic primary. After Byrd watched Democrats march further left, he announced a bold decision in 1970: He would seek reelection as an independent. Time magazine and many others wrote him off, saying the odds were heavily against him. In November, Byrd rolled up 53.5 percent of the vote against a liberal Democrat (31 percent) and a Holton-style Republican (15 percent).
The conservatives had proven that lack of party affiliation was no barrier to election. Could liberals do the same?
In 1971, Virginia was stunned by the death of its young lieutenant governor, J. Sargeant Reynolds, who almost certainly would have been elected governor in 1973. A special election was called to fill the vacancy, and Henry Howell, the liberal populist from Norfolk who had nearly won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination two years earlier, saw his opening. Realizing he could not win the party nod in a small-turnout convention that had been called, Howell resolved to emulate Byrd (perhaps for the first time).
What was good for the right also proved effective for the left. Howell won in November with 40 percent; a moderate-conservative Democrat received 37 percent, and another GOP Holton-moderate grabbed the remaining 23 percent. (By the way, does Howell bolting for independency after his party chose a convention instead of a primary sound familiar in the context of 2013?)
After Howell won, Virginia’s three top elective offices were filled by a Republican governor, an independent lieutenant governor, and a Democratic attorney general. Were we just confused, or was there a method to our madness?
Virginia’s version of Armageddon ensued in 1973, as Lt. Gov. Howell — still an independent — ran for governor against the most recent former Democratic governor, Mills Godwin, standing this time as a Republican.
Despite the fact that two former Democrats were on the ballot, for the first time since the end of Reconstruction, there was no Democratic gubernatorial nominee at all (though state Democrats eventually “commended” Howell’s record). The result was the closest in Virginia’s modern history up to that time, with Godwin capturing 50.7 percent to Howell’s 49.3 percent. Fifteen independents of various stripes were elected to the House of Delegates as well.
And then, it was over. The sun set on the short, glorious day of the independent, with the former Byrd Democrats shifting almost en masse into the Republican Party. Henceforth, GOP nominees would be conservative, and Democratic candidates — depending on the year — would be either moderate or liberal. Party realignment had occurred.
In the last gasp of the independent era, Sen. Byrd was easily re-elected in 1976, becoming the first pure independent to get a second Senate term without a party label.
Is today’s Virginia on the verge of adding a modern chapter to the saga of the third way? That depends on Bill Bolling’s mid-March decision, of course. But there are clear lessons that apply to 2013.
First, the successful independents were all well-known and in high office prior to breaking with their parties. Their established records and prior campaigns gave them credibility with the electorate. Bolling plainly passes this test.
Second, there were underlying conditions that gave the independents a legitimate raison d’etre beyond their personal ambitions. The political marketplace at the time could support a third candidacy since substantial numbers of voters were dissatisfied with the parties or the choices they offered. Both Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe are considered controversial by many, so this condition for a Bolling candidacy is fulfilled, even in a polarizing era when partisanship is more sharply defined than in the 1970s.
Third, the earlier independents had a strong financial base of supporters and could spend as much or more than their opponents. After all, even accounting for inflation, the costs of campaigning were much lower back then; in 1973 both Godwin and Howell spent about a million dollars. This year each candidate will raise tens of millions, with considerable help from their national parties.
Can Bolling hope to keep pace? If he chooses not to run or he loses, this will be a primary explanation. On the other hand, Virginia places no limits on campaign contributions. A handful of financial angels — technically, a single one — could supply Bolling with the war chest he needs.
The script for Virginia’s third man is still being written. There can be no gripping plot, much less a conclusion, until we know whether Bolling will mount a candidacy. But if he runs, the wise will be cautious about making early predictions.
Virginia’s prior independent politicians blazed an unusual trail and they confounded those who persisted in calling them spoilers. This is a rapidly changing state, but one still bound by traditions — and the independent tradition could possibly be on the calendar for revival.
Larry J. Sabato is director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. This article initially appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted in The Star with the author’s permission.