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GOP turmoil had Virginia in spotlight - in 1976
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GOP turmoil had Virginia in spotlight - in 1976

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At the Virginia Republican convention in Harrisonburg in April, as the GOP noisily selected presidential nominating delegates for Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, Boyd Marcus cruised the James Madison University arena halls, chatting with old friends and flashing his knowing, gap-toothed grin.

A veteran operative skilled in the organizational arcana of conventions, Marcus usually is in the thick of things – and he was in 1976, when Republicans met in Norfolk and did, for the first time, what they tried and failed to do in Harrisonburg in 2016: detonate a recommended slate of delegates and construct an entirely new one in real time.

Forty years ago, Marcus – then a kid out of Leesburg who’d fallen in at the University of Virginia with some of the future big names in state Republican politics, such as George Allen and Jim Gilmore – was the last delegate installed on the substitute slate over which President Gerald Ford and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan fiercely battled. The nominating duel concluded months later in Kansas City, Mo., with a fractured, Watergate-wounded party finally rallying around Ford for a full term.

The Ford-Reagan fight pulled the GOP irreversibly to the right, portending the conservative-versus-conservative face-offs that have shaped Republican politics in Virginia and elsewhere ever since.

But in 1976, Virginia – Colonial cornerstone of a nation then celebrating its bicentennial – would accomplish for the national Republican ticket what early polls suggest is unlikely this year: The state narrowly went Republican, tilting to Ford by fewer than 23,000 votes. Virginia was the only state in the old Confederacy that did not swoon for Jimmy Carter, a Georgian whose appeal to regional pride harnessed a new version of what Democrats in the 1930s and 1940s had known as the Solid South.

“Virginia, at that point, was leading the tide of change that was going through the South,” said Marcus, a Reagan delegate who, years later, was so put off by his party's rigid conservatism that he supported Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor in 2013. “The Northern Virginia suburbs were voting Republican. The Republican Party of Virginia was in the process of moving large numbers of Democrats to the Republican Party. ... We were just ahead of a lot of places in the South.”

Indeed, by 1976, Virginia Republicans were ascendant, nearly immune to the Watergate furor that cost the GOP dearly elsewhere.

Virginia Republicans had won two consecutive gubernatorial elections, in 1969 and 1973, and were poised to claim a third in 1977. They had snapped up a U.S. Senate seat in 1972 that they would hold until 2008. They held six of 10 seats in the state's delegation to the House of Representatives.

They were even picking up seats in the General Assembly, where a lopsided Democratic majority, in place since the late 19th century, endured not because of a continuing partisan reflex but because lawmakers' personal bonds to voters transcended party label, making elections for the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate a friends-and-neighbors affair. (Democrats also had an artificial advantage, one that Republicans would adopt when they took over the legislature in 2000: partisan gerrymandering.)

The principal reason for the Republicans' success was their common cause with conservative Democrats. Under the late U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., D-Va., and his son and successor, Harry Jr., they had been largely estranged from their liberal national party since the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency that spanned from the Great Depression through World War II. These bourbon Democrats would publicly align with Republican candidates as counterweights to big-spending, fast-growing Democratic government.

This coalition was largely the handiwork of a Republican visionary: Richard Obenshain, the lawyer-son of a university professor. Obenshain – his signature dark-framed spectacles recalled those of another unapologetic Republican conservative he supported in 1964, Barry Goldwater – grew up in the state's mountainous southwest. There, two-party competition dated to the mid-1800s and the secede-or-not debate that roiled Virginia before it joined the 10 other slave states of the Confederacy in 1861.

Obenshain would run unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1969, become state party chairman in 1972 and, a short time later, align with Reagan. The two shared a commitment to smaller, parsimonious government – a theme that had long attracted conservative Democrats.

If it was Obenshain who brought passion to the Republican Party, it was his successor as chairman, George McMath, an Eastern Shore newspaper publisher, who professionalized it. On McMath's watch, beginning in 1974, the Virginia GOP hired bright young things who would later become household names in business and national politics. Bill Royall, a future direct-mail and college-marketing pioneer and Richmond arts benefactor, was hired as the party's executive director. Brought on as finance director was a stamp-collecting former organizer of college Republicans credited decades later with installing Bush 2 in the White House: Karl Rove.

After Virginia Republicans bound their wounds from the Ford-Reagan fight, these operatives and others – including Kenneth Klinge, who was Royall's predecessor as executive director, an intimate of colorful Reagan campaign adviser Lyn Nofziger and, later, a Richmond lobbyist – would provide an important organizational bulwark for the general election against Carter.

"It would take all of the Virginia Republican Party's considerable assets to mount a winning campaign in 1976," Frank B. Atkinson, a Republican lawyer-lobbyist and political historian, wrote in his 1992 book, "The Dynamic Dominion: Realignment and the Rise of Virginia's Republican Party Since 1945."

"In the aftermath of Watergate and his pardon of Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford was waging an uphill battle to retain the White House, while in Virginia and the rest of the South, the presence of former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter at the top of the Democratic ticket made Republican victories unlikely."

But before they could focus on beating Carter, Virginia Republicans had to beat up each other.

Their convention at the flying-saucer-shaped Scope was contentious, with Establishment figures backing Ford as more electable than Reagan, who was the conservative darling of the party's ideological wing. The floor fight over the delegate slate for the national convention produced a fresh lineup of activists, many of whom were believed to be supporting Reagan. So insistent were Reagan Republicans about a slate weighted to their man that some pushed to exclude the lieutenant governor, John Dalton, a Ford man readying to run for governor the following year.

The struggle between Ford and Reagan over delegates was just beginning.

The president carried out a Rose Garden strategy, wooing delegates with the trappings of office. "The White House had more state dinners in the shortest period of time," said Klinge, noting that Ford quickly picked off five Virginia delegates, compounding the bitterness that so often shapes person-to-person, caucus-and-convention politics.

At the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Reagan ultimately prevailed with the Virginia delegation, winning 35 votes to 16 for Ford. But Ford would be the Republican nominee, forcing disappointed Reagan supporters in Virginia to decide whether it was more important to cry over their loss than to keep one of their own in the presidency.

"Most of use were party people, and we had watched Richard Nixon all but destroy the party, especially in the South," said Klinge, referring to Watergate-related congressional losses in Northern Virginia. "We had been making gains."

For that to continue required solidarity. Republicans lined up behind the president, led by officials and operatives from the Ford and Reagan camps. They included Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr., a Democrat-turned-Republican loyal to Ford, and Reagan backers Obenshain and Judy Peachee, who had been on Godwin's staff and decades later would support Democrats, viewing the GOP as outside the mainstream. U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., an independent after his break with the national Democratic Party in 1972, would nudge old-timey conservatives to Ford, appearing with him at a rally in Richmond shortly before the election.

Foremost in the effort was Obenshain, whose dream was not just that Virginia would be politically competitive but that the Republican Party would be the sole conservative alternative for a once-heavily rural state that was rapidly becoming a suburban dynamo. Obenshain didn't live to see it fully carried out: In September 1978, as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, he died in a plane crash in Chesterfield County.

Carter, too, pushed hard in Virginia, linking up with former Lt. Gov. Henry E. Howell Jr., the peppery populist and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate whom Republicans depicted as a liberal boogeyman. However, both men could appeal to Virginia voters across the spectrum – Carter, because of his Southern pedigree; Howell, as the consumer-friendly tormentor of the state's politically muscular utilities and telephone companies.

In the final countdown to Election Day, Virginia was literally at center stage. On Oct. 22, Ford and Carter met for their third and final debate at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. For Ford, who was hobbled by Watergate, his pardon of Nixon and a weak economy, the debate was a last chance to make up for his gaffe at the previous debate 16 days earlier in San Francisco. In a lengthy response to a question about the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Ford claimed that Eastern Europe was not under communist domination.

Ford, of course, would be denied a full, four-year term. But Virginia demonstrated that it was different, standing apart from its sister Southern states by narrowly tipping to the Republican and setting in motion an intriguing pattern that would endure until three years ago: Starting with the Carter victory, the party that won the presidency lost the governorship the following year. Known as the "Virginia Curse," the trend is often interpreted nationally as a leading indicator of voter distaste for the party in the White House.

In 2013, following Obama's repeat victory in Virginia, the curse was broken. Fellow Democrat McAuliffe was elected governor, in part with the support of Obenshain-era Republicans angry that their party had shifted so far right. Among them: Boyd Marcus.

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