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Political echoes of 1928 resonate in 2016 presidential campaign
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Political echoes of 1928 resonate in 2016 presidential campaign

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Voters fume over a flood of non-English-speaking newcomers, many of them from distant lands beset by turmoil.

A politically muscular minister thunders that these foreigners are a threat to public safety, not to mention American culture and values. His nativist appeal quickly shifts votes in the presidential campaign, eroding the advantage of an "Establishment" candidate.

Next, there's a flap over a loyalty oath. And a political party worries that the pledge will keep its voters from the polls.

Virginia 2016?

Nope.

Virginia 1928.

Eighty-eight years ago, politics in Virginia were upended when the reflexively Democratic electorate abandoned the party’s nominee for president, tipping the state to the Republicans by such a substantial margin that the GOP also grabbed three seats in the House of Representatives.

This dramatic break with Democratic tradition was rooted in Virginians’ fear of the new and different – specifically, a candidate, Al Smith, who was a Roman Catholic of Irish descent from New York City and an opponent of Prohibition, the national ban on alcoholic beverages. This was four strikes too many for insular Virginians, the majority of whom were conservative Protestants and, at least publicly, models of temperance.

Further, Smith’s loss in Virginia – the New York governor was defeated nationally by Republican Herbert Hoover, whose single term would become synonymous with the Great Depression – would ripple through an important state campaign in 1929, threatening continuing Democratic control of the governorship.

As a remedy, Democrats resorted to creative lawyering by the state's attorney general. His focus was a perceived party loyalty oath – an issue that, nearly a century later, triggered a lawsuit in Richmond federal court over Republican efforts to thwart in the March 1 presidential primary Donald Trump’s insurgent candidacy, a centerpiece of which is a promise to close the nation's borders to Muslims.

It's an updated nativist theme that has been touched on by Jerry Falwell Jr., the politically active son of the late conservative Christian televangelist. After the San Bernadino, Calif., mass slayings, Falwell urged students at family-founded Liberty University, where Trump appeared in January, to arm themselves against Muslim threats.

Smith's candidacy in 1928 tested the character of a very different Virginia.

The state had a population of 2.4 million, compared with 8.3 million today. Most of its residents lived in the countryside, with agriculture the dominant driver of the state's economy. Now it's a suburban-dominated state and has a service-based economy.

In the 1920s, Virginia also was decidedly Southern in its outlook, still reveling in the Lost Cause that was the Civil War. The state, now dominated by increasingly moderate, non-native "come-heres" with a national perspective, was politically and culturally conservative. Mindful of the propriety demanded by voters, elective officials – at least those who tippled – did so away from prying eyes while openly bowing to the state's politically potent anti-booze religious leadership.

"Although state Democratic leaders publicly expressed optimism about carrying the Old Dominion for Smith, privately they had reservations," wrote Virginia historian Ronald L. Heinemann in "Harry Byrd of Virginia," a biography of the era's dominant political personality.

In his 1996 book, Heinemann cited a letter by the Virginia Democratic chairman, J. Murray Hooker, to Smith's vice presidential running mate, Joseph Robinson: "Many are in open revolt and actively and openly opposing Governor Smith's election. This is particularly true of the dry people and the church people."

First among them was James Cannon Jr., the state's Methodist bishop. In Virginia and beyond, Cannon assembled an anti-Smith coalition – the glue of which was intolerance for alcohol and suspicion of the Eastern European immigrants flooding the nation since the late 1800s. It was coupled with the small Republican vote, then largely confined to mountainous western Virginia.

The coalition's most visible components were the Anti-Saloon League, founded in Ohio in 1893, and the Ku Klux Klan, a largely Southern all-white hate organization launched after the Civil War. It was disdainful of blacks, Jews, immigrants and Catholics, all of whom rallied to Smith's candidacy. The Byrd-led oligarchy shared with the Klan a commitment to white supremacy but viewed the organization, which would stage marches in Richmond and Roanoke, as undignified and crass.

"In spite of Smith's liabilities, Virginia's political leaders resolved to back the nominee, fearing that a Republican victory would threaten their control of the party and state politics," Heinemann said. "Their dander was also up because of the possibility that Virginia might be turned into a pigsty of religious bigotry."

Their antidote, however, was racial prejudice. Byrd, then governor, and other Democratic leaders strongly endorsed Smith by warning of the perils of Republican control, one of which was the possible depletion of white hegemony. In post-Civil War Virginia and across the South, the GOP was the party of Reconstruction, having extended the vote to African-Americans – a development undone in the early 20th century by the poll tax and other restrictions.

Cannon did not mince words in mobilizing Virginia’s Democratic vote against Smith, berating him for his commitment to what, nearly nine decades later, would be described as diversity: “The Italians, the Sicilians, the Poles and Russian Jews. That kind has given us a stomachache. We have been unable to assimilate such people in our national life, so we shut the door on them. But Smith says, ‘Give me that kind of people.’ He wants the kind of dirty people you find today on the sidewalks of New York.”

Cannon's biographer, Virginius Dabney, said in "Dry Messiah: The Life of Bishop Cannon" that such appeals harnessed a particular Southern impulse.

"Cannon knew that millions of dry Protestant Democrats in the South were seething with indignation at the selection by their party of an ultra-wet Roman Catholic," said Dabney, referring to Smith. "He knew that there was much latent feeling against Catholicism in the South, some of which had been kindled by the Ku Klux Klan, then at the height of its prestige and power.

"Cannon was aware that the ... Southern states were preponderantly Protestant and rural and that thousands of their citizens had never so much as seen a Catholic, much less learned to know one. On the farms and in the small towns, where Catholics were regarded as strange beings from some remote planet, the possibilities for a campaign addressed to the prejudices of the mob were practically unlimited."

It worked, allowing Hoover to carry Virginia. It also forced the state’s Democratic organization, when selecting its candidates, to accommodate Cannon – until several years later, when he was toppled by a sex scandal and allegations of profiteering.

Virginia Democrats faced an immediate problem in 1929, when voters would choose Byrd's successor as governor. Because of a quirk of election law, a vast swath of the Democratic electorate would be ineligible to vote in the party's gubernatorial primary – which was tantamount to election, since the GOP was weak and poorly organized. The troublesome statute banned voters from entering the Democratic primary if they had not supported the party's nominee in the preceding election.

Attorney General John Saunders devised a way to bring "Hoovercrats" back into the fold.

In an opinion requested by the State Democratic Central Committee, the party's governing body, Saunders declared that Democrats who had voted for Hoover over Smith could participate in the gubernatorial primary because the national election only determined Virginia's representatives to the Electoral College – and that these individuals were not state party nominees. Thus, Saunders concluded, Hoovercrats had not violated the law and could cast ballots in the all-important primary.

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