Undemocratic Politics in Virginia

In 1985, Mary Sue Terry became the first woman to win a statewide election when she soundly defeated the Republican rival W. R. “Buster” O’Brien. She won 61.4 % of the popular vote, a greater margin than her Patrick County compatriot Gerald Baliles who won the Governor’s seat by 55.2% of the popular vote. The map of the election for Mary Sue Terry illustrates her overwhelming victory.

In 1989, Terry ran for a second term as Attorney General and again solidly defeated her Republican rival, Joseph B. Benedetti, as she garnered more than 1 million votes totaling 63.19% of the popular vote to Benedetti’s 36.79 percent total.

Fast forward to 1993, just one year after what political pundits dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” when Mary Sue Terry had secured the uncontested Democratic nomination in the gubernatorial election. Expectations were high that Terry would become Virginia’s first woman Governor. She entered the race leading by a margin of 29 points against her Republican rival, George F. Allen. However, when the votes were tallied in November, Terry had gained only 40.89% of the popular vote, while Allen scooped up 58.27% and became the first candidate in Virginia’s history to garner more than 1 million votes in a gubernatorial contest. The map for this election is nearly all blue.

Reminiscent of the election antics of the “Virginia Organization” Key discusses in Southern Politics in State and Nation, Sabato describes a “whisper campaign” that caused Terry’s lead to plummet: “a Roanoke psychiatrist unconnected to the Allen campaign made wild accusations about Terry’s alleged sexual preference. These accusations were made while the man was before a professional disciplinary board on account of his sexual activity with his own patients. Terry was forced to deny the groundless ranting; but her campaign reported privately that news accounts of the allegations had sent Terry’s poll ratings tumbling.”

In the Introduction to his podcast Virginia Politics and Government, Jeff Thomas describes Virginia politics as a bankrupt ideology of aristocrats serving honorably, transparently and beyond reproach. He states, “the Virginia way is a myth spun to distract people from the operations of power in state government.” In a later podcast, his guest, Brent Tarter, discusses the tradition of undemocratic government in Virginia tied to the the Elizabethan culture of elite representation. He states that Virginia Government has been resistant to change noting that until the 1950s, the government was run “by the tobacco planters, for the tobacco planters” with no representation for women, African Americans, or the majority of white men. The tobacco planters were eventually replaced by business men who continued to operate in much the same manner.

Based on Tarter’s account it seems little wonder that no other woman has won a state-wide election in Virginia, since Terry’s 1985 and 1989 victories. In a New York Times article, reporter by B. Drummond Ayres, Jr., notes in Terry’s concession speech, she is quoted “Somewhere in Virginia tonight the first woman governor of Virginia is watching,” she said. “This is a fight worth fighting. This is a fight for the right. And someday we will win.”

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the question in 2017 is how much longer will Virginians have to wait before a woman is elected Governor?


Key, V. O., and Alexander Heard. Southern Politics in State and Nation. Knoxville. University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

Sabato, Larry J. “University of Virginia Newsletter.” Jan. 1994.

Ayers, B. Drummond. “THE 1993 ELECTIONS: Virginia; Conservative Republican Wins Easily.” New York Times, 3 Nov. 1993.

Jeff Thomas. “Virginia Politics & Government Podcast Introduction and Episode 8 – Brent Tarter on Undemocratic Politics in Virginia.” Virginia Politics & Government, 3 Feb. 2017, soundcloud.com/user-171598480/virginia-politics-government


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