NORFOLK - In the 1950s, Virginia politics was run by conservative Democrats with former governor Harry F. Byrd, Senior at the helm. Virginians called it the Byrd machine, which was for the most part at odds with the national Democratic party. It took the civil rights movement to shake things up. After the Brown versus the Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 that banned school segregation, Byrd called for massive resistance.
"So the Byrd machine, the conservative southern white leaders, who ran the Byrd machine, essentially said we're going to shut down public schools rather than integrate them," said Dr. Quentin Kidd, chairman of the Government department at Christopher Newport University and author of "The Rational Southerner."
Former Republican congressman Dr. Bill Whitehurst of Norfolk recalls the Byrd rule as a time when state Republicans were out in the wilderness. Whitehurst was elected to Congress in 1968, the first Republican in the Commonwealth since the Civil War. He says massive resistance was the beginning of the end of the Byrd machine.
"It was a mistake. People in this city saw the high schools close and said this can't go on," he recalled.
The conservative Democratic party became fractured. After the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were passed in the 60s, suddenly you had hundreds of thousands new voters in the state. These voters sided with republicans, the more liberal party in statewide elections but broke for the democrat in presidential elections. The election of republican governor, Linwood Holton in 1969 was an example of the schizophrenic voting patterns. He won with the help of many African Americans. Meanwhile, the former Byrd democrats were looking for a home and two factions of the republican party began to clash, conservatives versus liberals. Conservatives won.
"These conservative white voters who had been the dominant Democratic party were trying to figure where their new home would be. All these new African-American voters were flooding into the Democratic party because nationally that's where the democratic party was-- the party that pushed civil rights,' noted Kidd.
In the late 60s and early 70s, as Byrd Democrats started joining the GOP, the party grew and began to capture more electoral victories, becoming the more dominant party in the state.
Whitehurst said when Chuck Robb became governor in the 80s, he moved the Democratic party back to the middle and the party began to shore up its identity. More people began to join, particularly in northern Virginia, where people settled from all over the country to work in the federal government.
Bill Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to make a play for Virginia after witnessing the election of the country's first African-American governor, Doug Wilder, in 1989.
"They said Virginia is ready for a challenge at the presidential level, but they realized that it wasn't," Kidd stated.
In 2004, John Kerry tried it again after the election of democratic governor Mark Warner in 2001. Shortly after Labor Day, his campaign realized Virginia was not within reach and the few paid staff members he had in the state left.
Then in 2008, then candidate Barack Obama took a very different approach. Instead of relying on the Democratic National Committee to lay the groundwork for a run in Virginia, his campaign decided to set up shop on its own. It laid out what is said to be the largest ground operation ever put together in a presidential campaign.