How do you solve a problem like Virginia? No less an authority than The New York Times assured us as recently as July that Virginia was “solid blue.” But the Old Dominion suffers periodic spasms of nostalgia for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and massive resistance to school integration and the cotton, corn, and taters never-mind-who once picked in the fields, as celebrated in a minstrel song that remained the state’s official anthem until March 1997. Now Virginia may turn over the keys to its executive mansion to a race-baiting Republican private-equity tycoon called Glenn Youngkin, whose closing argument against Democrat Terry McAuliffe is that McAuliffe refused, during his earlier gubernatorial term (2014 to 2018), to bar public schools from teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
The Virginia that The New York Times recognizes as blue is the moderately liberal one that prevails most of the time, thanks largely to growing suburbanization in the north, where the state borders Washington, D.C. Even Manassas, where the Confederates twice defeated the Union Army, voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections. Virginia was the first state to elect as governor an African American (Democrat Douglas Wilder, 1989) and still remains the only one, apart from Massachusetts (Democrat Deval Patrick, 2006 and 2010).
Virginia’s retrograde spasms these days have less to do with the ghost of Robert E. Lee (whose massive equestrian statue was removed from the state capital in September) than with the ghost of the segregationist Harry F. Byrd, who as governor and then senator from 1926 to 1965 presided over a powerful Democratic machine. In a striking essay posted Monday by The Washington Monthly, Garrett Epps recalled the uncritical race theory he was taught in elementary school in 1961 as part of a course in Virginia history that the Byrd Organization had required since the late 1940s. One state-sponsored textbook, A Hornbook of Virginia History, explained: “The debt the Negro race owes to Virginia and the South has never been less recognized than it is today. Virginia took a backward race of savages, part cannibal, civilized it, developed many of its best qualities.” The same book also said a determination “to preserve the racial purity of the whites … is the foundation upon which Virginia’s handling of the racial issue rests, and has always rested.”
That remained official state doctrine—Virginia, recall, was the state whose prosecution of Richard and Mildred Loving led to the Supreme Court overturning state anti-miscegenation laws—until 1972, when the books finally were removed from schools. When Youngkin (who entered school that year) rails against critical race theory as “so divisive” and assures voters, “I wasn’t raised that way,” the old Hornbook of Virginia History is what he’s invoking.
The Byrd machine was killed off by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended the suppression of Black votes that had made it possible. Its most dedicated white segregationist followers then transferred their allegiance to the Republican Party. The state went red, then purple, then blue. Virginia voted Republican in presidential elections until 2008; then it voted Democratic. Democrats and Republicans traded places in controlling the governorship until 2014, when the Democrats started to dominate. Senator (and former Governor) George Allen lost reelection in 2006 after addressing a South Asian in the audience with the inscrutable but plainly offensive racial slur, “macaca.” No Republican has represented Virginia in the Senate since John Warner retired in 2009.
The last major Harry Byrd spasm was the 2009 election of Bob McDonnell as governor. McDonnell had written a master’s thesis in 1989 that said, “Every level of government should statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators.” As governor, McDonnell proclaimed April 2010 Confederate History Month and eliminated homosexuals from the groups protected from employment discrimination in state government. McDonnell eventually was prosecuted for accepting a Rolex and other bribes from a dietary-supplement huckster, his conviction overturned only because the Supreme Court narrowed its legal definition of bribery.
The McDonnell scandal kept Republicans out of the governorship after he served one term, but Republicans remain a force in the state legislature, and in the final days of an extremely close gubernatorial race, Youngkin seems to think he can bring on another Harry Byrd spasm by picking a fight with a dead African American Nobel Prize–winner. On Monday, Youngkin posted a campaign ad on Twitter featuring Laura Murphy, a white Fairfax County mother who said that her son Blake was traumatized by having to read Beloved as a high school senior. Laura told The Washington Post in 2013 that Blake was disturbed by the book’s depictions of (spoiler alert) bestiality, gang rape, and the murder of an infant. Blake told the Post that “it was disgusting and gross” and “hard for me to handle” and that “I gave up on it.” The book, Blake said, gave him night terrors—an affliction that, according to WebMD, afflicts children aged 3 to 12. But Blake’s a survivor. He went on to intern at the Trump White House and to work as an associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The spot, which my New Republic colleague Alex Shephard discusses at greater length here, is a small masterpiece, blending sotto voce racism (it doesn’t name the book or the author, relying instead on the viewer learning these by word of mouth) with anti-intellectualism and a splash of see-how-you-like-it cancel-culturing. It may be designed more to goad the cultural elite into calling Youngkin’s campaign an appeal to bigotry (which it now is, if there was any doubt before) and to the defiant ignorance that keeps Donald Trump in control of the GOP (ditto). A Democratic overreaction might help Youngkin because, for many Republican voters, it’s far worse to accuse someone of racism and stupidity than it is to be racist or stupid.
The trouble is that Virginia may be the wrong state in which to make such an attack. The Harry Byrd wing of the Republican Party is already engaged, thanks to Trump’s ravings that he won the 2020 election. The fight now is over suburban moderates who, recent experience tells us, don’t like Trump (which is why Youngkin has barred Trump from campaigning in-state). Do Virginia suburbanites really want to make this election about Toni Morrison? The pitch strikes me as too obviously racist, too obviously anti-intellectual to sell in Virginia. McDonnell approached the culture war with more Tidewater finesse.
Still, one can’t ignore that McAuliffe has been losing ground to Youngkin in the polls, and it doesn’t help that former Governor Wilder decided this was the moment to trash McAuliffe for failing to deliver to historically Black colleges and universities. Wilder, now 90, has never much liked McAuliffe and tangled publicly with him on a variety of matters when he was governor. Meanwhile, ProPublica reported this week that Lynchburg’s Liberty University (which never got the memo that Virginia’s turned blue) actively suppresses student rape allegations, advising that victims just … pray. Who knows what color Virginia will be next week? The ghost of Harry Byrd lingers still.