By Lucas Williams
On May 13, 1966, the son of the well-established political boss, Harry F. Byrd, defeated Armistead L. Boothe from Northern Virginia in the Democratic Senatorial primary election. Many voters at the time expected that Byrd would emerge victorious, but few would have predicted that the narrow victory that some believed to denote the beginning of the end of the massive Byrd Organization. By a margin of merely, 8,307 votes, Harry F. Byrd, Jr., defeated Boothe in a hard-fought political campaign which was anything but ordinary. Although the result was a victory for Byrd, Jr., political analysts recognized the changing face of Virginia politics for which old-school politicians would need to adapt or risk losing office.
The primary concern in the Virginia senatorial election of ’66 was who would fill the seat left by political boss, Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Between Byrd, Sr.’s resignation due to his poor health and the July election, his son occupied the post on temporary appointment from his father. A victory for Harry Byrd, Jr., meant a victory for the Byrd Organization and a continuation of Byrd politics. But the political face of Virginia had dramatically changed in the years leading up to 1966: Movements for school integration accompanied by Massive Resistance had sharply divided the Virginian Democratic Party. Additionally, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 created the potential for tens of thousands of enfranchised voters all over Virginia. As July 12, 1966 drew nearer, the state waited in suspense to see what lay ahead for the future of Virginia state politics.
Byrd’s primary contender for the Democratic Party’s ticket to the Senate seat was a charming University of Virginia and Oxford educated man, Armistead L. Boothe. From Alexandria, Virginia, Boothe was expected to poll well in the Northern Virginian districts. Boothe’s running mate, William B. Spong challenged the seat held for twenty years by the conservative leaning member of the Byrd Organization, A. Willis Robertson. All of the candidates participated in several debates across the state, but the Byrd-Boothe matchup captured the spotlight.
Boothe and Byrd had met years earlier when serving in the Navy. It was in their early acquaintances that Byrd had suggested that Boothe go into politics. Now, it appeared his recommendation would come back to bite him. Each young politician began with promising careers in the Byrd Organization, but they split over the issue of school desegregation leading up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1956. Boothe recommended that the state pursue a civil rights commission in the wake of desegregation, but the Organization pursued an opposing agenda—Massive Resistance.
Boothe got an early jump on the campaign trail, announcing his candidacy in mid-May, and he continued to challenge Byrd to a series of debates, which Byrd refused to accept for some time. Seeking support from all over the state, both Byrd and Boothe travelled throughout the counties. Byrd later met Boothe in a series of debates leading up to the election. Topics in these debates revolved around discussion of Johnson administration policy, Right-to-Work policy in Virginia, and of course, the candidates’ platforms.
While Byrd and Boothe contended for the Democratic place on the ticket, other political voting blocs were keenly watching the Democratic race. Republicans and Conservatives around the state were linked to the Byrd Machine, and their desire to maintain the current conservative order was reflected by the Republican nomination to run against the victor of the Democratic primary. The Republicans certainly expected Byrd to win, so they nominated Lawrence M. Traylor, a candidate who would guarantee a Byrd victory in the final Senatorial election without costing the Republicans too much. Virginia Conservatives also nominated two candidates to run for the Senate seats, but there was discussion whether it would be more prudent to simply endorse Byrd and Robertson. The Republican collusion to propel Byrd, Jr., demonstrates the pervasiveness of the Byrd Machine. It also demonstrates the sheer domination of the Democratic party up to that point in Virginia. There was only one potential hiccup: If Boothe defeated Byrd in the primary, he would have a clear path to the U.S. senate seat. In many ways, this primary was taking the political pulse of the state.
While Byrd’s platform promised more of the same politics and policies of his father’s tenure, Boothe’s platform was more progressive. A long opponent of legal school segregation prior to Brown v. Board, Boothe earned the reputation as a strong proponent for the Civil Rights Act. His platform included support for a “one-man-one-vote” agenda following the Voting Rights Act. On his platform advertisement, Boothe cites Byrd’s opposition to the policy, and in the debates Boothe frequently attacked Byrd’s record on civil rights issues. Topics spanning a wide variety of topics such as public schooling in light of Massive Resistance, Fair Housing, and Right-to-Work were hot topics of their debates.
Although Boothe claimed that he occupied a moderate position, critics ranted against his liberal-leaning policies. One opinion article title “Leopards, and Armistead Boothe Can’t Change Their Spots,” which ran in the Tidewater News, criticized Boothe’s voting record on Right-to-Work laws in Virginia. The article praises Byrd’s consistency while disparaging Boothe’s seemingly recent stance in favor of “Right-to-Work,” calling him a “Johnny-come-lately” trying to win conservative voters by switching his stances. Boothe took other positions in his platform, such as supporting the war in Vietnam that appealed to more conservative voters. Despite Boothe’s attempt to brand himself as a moderate, many voters and politicians alike saw him as the liberal-leaning candidate that would drastically change the old order if elected.
Boothe’s proposals drew support from women, Black voters, and University of Virginia students—demographics that favored more liberal policies. In an a appearance with all of the candidates in front of the Virginia League of Women’s Voters in Richmond, Boothe supported Johnson Administration policies regarding federal aid in Medicare and social security. He also discussed education policy, a topic he frequently used to attack Byrd’s conservative voting record. A delegation of women from a speech in Williamsburg recalled Boothe’s unwavering commitment to public education in the height of Massive Resistance by the Byrd Organization. Del. Marion Galland described Boothe as a man who has been “with us on so many things that matter to women. He has fought our battles, and we need him to go on fighting.” Boothe also received the pledged support from the Virginia Independent Voters League, an African-American voting unit with sway over two hundred thousand potential voters. Citing Byrd and Robertson’s “long history of rejection of modern civil rights legislation” as sufficient reason to “repudiate” them, the VIVL voted to support the more moderate platform of Boothe.
The support that Boothe gathered under a more progressive banner, presented a frightening challenge for supporters of the old political order. A Boothe victory would spell sweeping changes for the face of Virginia politics. But the Byrd Machine could not allow that to happen. The Virginian Pilot reported on a controversial speech Byrd delivered in Portsmouth, in which he seemed to encourage Conservative party members to vote in the Democratic primary. Although it was illegal for any voter who had voted Conservative in the previous election to switch parties, Byrd argued that the “largest number possible” is “always more desirable for the people.” He urged Republicans and Conservatives to vote in the Democratic primary, a push that might have had significant consequences in the narrow election result. Without cross party voting spurred by the Byrd Machine, it is very likely that Boothe might have taken the party ticket.
Tensions were fraught in Virginia as the candidates battled each other only days before Election Day. Suddenly, three days before the ballots were cast, Byrd stopped campaigning. Harry Byrd, Sr., was in critical condition, and Byrd, Jr., announced that he would no longer campaign, choosing instead to wait until the results were decided. In a demonstration of sportsmanship, Boothe quit the campaign trail as well, suspending the campaigns until the election results were released on July 13th. By then, Boothe was confident there would be a large turnout to vote—the voters knew the issues. He estimated at least 500,000 ballots would be cast, not far from the 434,699 votes that were cast.
The final tally denoted a narrow victory for Byrd, a relief to the conservatives, but political analysts were wary, calling the large support for Boothe a sign of the changing face of Virginia politics. Not only had the young Spong usurped the seat from Robertson, but the moderate platform had gained a lot of ground during the campaign. The political analysts noted that the “urban” vote was overtaking the rural vote: a sign of things to come. Additionally, Boothe’s appeal to young students, African-American voters, and women promised unconventional voting power of demographics previously unrepresented that would be growing in the coming years, forcing future politicians to shift their platforms, the first step in an increasingly progressive state.