IRVINGTON – Linwood Holton raises fruit trees. And not just because he likes peaches and apples.

Part of the satisfaction is beating the odds. Nature can be an adversary, quickly erasing a crop.

When he lived in McLean, in the Northern Virginia suburbs, Holton had a peach tree in his yard. To his annoyance, squirrels were getting more fruit than he was.

Holton's solution: Scatter the varmints with an occasional blast from his shotgun. Holton would fire it when a jetliner noisily passed overhead, concealing the gun's report.

Soon, the tree's bounty exploded.

Holton – now 95 and retired to Irvington, on the marshy Northern Neck – nurtured Virginia's Republican Party much as he did his fruit trees: with discipline, determination and, occasionally, drama.

Fifty years ago this November, Holton made history: He was elected the state's first Republican governor of the 20th century, ushering in the era of competitive politics that accelerated Virginia's transition from racially fraught rural backwater to diverse suburban dynamo.

For Holton, who from childhood aspired to the governorship, the second time was the charm: He had been defeated for governor in 1965, losing to Democrat Mills Godwin Jr. (who not just preceded Holton but actually succeeded him for a second term – but as a Republican).

A wheel horse of the old conservative Democratic regime, Godwin had reinvented himself as a progressive, harnessing newly enfranchised African American voters who welcomed his surprise endorsement the previous year of a civil rights president, Lyndon Johnson.

Holton's win for governor notwithstanding, succeeding generations of Virginians may know him more for his contrarianism.

By the mid-1980s, Holton was openly despairing of the Republican Party's conservatism, and he endorsed numerous Democrats. That included son-in-law Tim Kaine, a governor, U.S. senator and 2016 vice presidential nominee.

Holton, who married into a Democratic family, doubts that his own father-in-law, Frank Rogers, a prominent lawyer in Roanoke, ever strayed from the party – even when Holton's name was on the ballot.

"I went one way and he stayed the other," Holton said.

***

Until Holton's victory in 1969, Virginians had elected 21 consecutive Democratic governors. Nearly all of them were skin-flint segregationists preoccupied with holding down public spending and keeping down African Americans.

With Holton's triumph, Virginia politics was reinvented: It became a two-party affair. Virginia hadn't had a Republican governor since 1884, when William Cameron – elected three years earlier as a Readjuster, vowing to put public investment ahead of public debt – declared himself a Republican.

Cameron, having temporarily toppled Virginia's conservative Democratic oligarchy, sought to yank the state from its post-Civil War stupor. He urged increased spending on education and other neglected services, and he was – because it held the promise of continued Republican gains – conciliatory on race.

Racial harmony was, for Holton, a preeminent concern. In the 1950s, it was Virginia's defiance of court-ordered desegregation of public schools that convinced Holton that one-party politics – the emblem of which was U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, D-Va. – was stunting the state.

Sitting in the airy den of his cottage at the Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury retirement community, Holton invoked a flourish he frequently used in the campaign against William Battle, the Democratic nominee whom Holton would befriend: "In a two-drugstore town, you get what you want. In a one-drugstore town, you get what they want to give you."

Holton, his once-sandy red hair now snowy white, his cleft chin still distinct, said the 1969 election was about the friction of ideas, not factionalism.

"I never appealed to voters as a Republican," he said. "I appealed for a two-party competitive situation. Competition was bound to bring about better government. And that is what I emphasized."

Or as J. Harvie Wilkinson III – a former newspaper editorialist, defeated Republican congressional candidate and now federal appellate judge – said in a 1982 precis of Holton for the University of Virginia Press: "It was only fair ... that Republicans have their chance to govern after nearly a century of Democratic rule."

Holton's "time-for-a-change" mantra would resonate powerfully in the expanding vote troughs of Northern Virginia, the Richmond area and Hampton Roads.

These regions, now multihued Democratic strongholds teeming with moderate and liberal non-natives, had been trending Republican because, a half-century ago, the party of Richard Nixon reflected prevailing suburban sensibilities.

Indeed, Nixon's win for the presidency in 1968 – he carried Virginia – produced residual enthusiasm for the Holton gubernatorial bid in 1969. Nixon himself stoked that excitement in the closing week of the campaign, appearing with Holton at a rally in Roanoke, the adoptive home of the Big Stone Gap-born Holton.

But Virginia politics is more than on-the-stump theatrics.

Case in point: Holton's odd coalition – one that would weaken during his governorship, spurring the rise of a conservative GOP that by 2013 would be shut out of statewide office altogether.

First and foremost, Holton attracted traditional, moderate Republicans with roots, such as his, in mountainous western Virginia. Also backing him: conservative Democrats, many from the Richmond area, who were jittery over their party's lurch to liberalism.

Some on the left, too, went Republican. They were angry that Democrats had opted for Battle, a moderate who moved with ease among Byrd conservatives and Kennedy liberals, over Henry Howell Jr., a populist firebrand sharply critical of banks, utilities and insurance companies.

A divisive three-candidate Democratic primary – Byrd loyalist Fred Pollard also ran - and the Battle-Howell run-off produced abundant ill will, weakening Battle for general election. Howell, in effect, refused to endorse Battle, declaring his voters "free spirits" who could support whomever they pleased.

It was an invitation for Democrats to defect.

And they did.

***

Holton ran with the seemingly unheard-of for a Republican: the endorsements of the state's black political leadership and organized labor, which bucked pressure from its national leadership to support Battle.

"We've been waiting a lifetime to kill the Byrd machine, and this is our chance and we're going to do it," Julian Carper, then president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, is quoted as saying in "The Dynamic Dominion," a history of post-World War II politics in Virginia by Republican lawyer-lobbyist Frank Atkinson. 

In backing Holton, the Crusade for Voters, an African American organization, declared that Battle was nothing more than an appendage of the old Byrd machine.

Holton's unusual amalgam of supporters would not only generate unlikely votes for a Republican but something that had been largely off limits to the party: robust financial support, much of it from conservative business leaders in Richmond, an ilk referred to simply as "Main Street."

Holton raised more money than Battle, pouring thousands into television advertising – including $500,000, then a princely amount, in the countdown to the election.

Holton's commercials depicted him as energetic and forward-thinking, and they accomplished in seconds what the word-of-mouth approach of the creaky Byrd apparatus conveyed over months.

"TV had not been used, and I felt that I was an appropriate candidate for TV," Holton said. "My ability and my speaking all added up to an effective competitive force."

The Republican ticket reflected the breadth of the party, but it had little appeal beyond the candidate at the top.

H.D. "Buz" Dawbarn, a crewcut-wearing state senator from the Shenandoah Valley, was the nominee for lieutenant governor. Richard Obenshain, a bespectacled Richmond lawyer and, later, architect of Virginia's conservative GOP, was picked for attorney general. (He was killed in a plane crash nine years later; he was his party's nominee for U.S. Senate, having defeated Holton and several others.)

Both would be defeated by well-known moderate Democrats.

J. Sargeant Reynolds, an aluminum heir with presumed national ambitions who would die of brain cancer a year and a half later, won for lieutenant governor. Andrew Miller, son of a prominent anti-Byrd Democrat, was elected attorney general and would later lose for governor and Senate.

***

The Holton-Battle campaign was not one in which the rivals staked out wildly different positions.

Holton urged refunding up to $9 per year to Virginians to offset the sales tax on food – an idea that the Democrat-controlled General Assembly would kill.

The candidates split on a proposal to consolidate management of the Port of Hampton Roads. Battle wanted local government control to continue. Holton favored single-agency oversight. The assembly would, too, and that has been the model ever since.

If only as a passing indication of simpler times, the 1969 campaign was not so breakneck that it didn't include a couple of days in October during which Holton could recharge, retreating to The Homestead resort in Bath County for sleep and tennis. 

Come Election Day – the first in Virginia for governor since repeal of the poll tax – Holton defeated Battle by 65,000 votes, piling up big wins not only on such traditional Republican turf as the Blue Ridge but in the suburbs that for the next decade would be a bulwark for the GOP.

The party would win the next two gubernatorial elections, a Senate seat, a majority of seats in the state's U.S. House delegation and make gains in the General Assembly.

They were advances foreshadowed by Holton's win – a win increasingly repudiated by his party as it fully absorbed the remnants of the deep-pocketed segregationist clique that Holton, through his commitment to two-party politics, had pledged to bring to heel.

In a sense, his elective career ended as it was just beginning.

At his swearing-in as governor in January 1970, Holton stunned the old guard with an appeal for racial amity, declaring that Virginia would be an "aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed."

An alarmed Establishment would remember that overture eight years later, when Holton sought the Republican nomination for Senate. He lost a four-way convention in Richmond to his running mate for attorney general, Obenshain, who forged an alliance of conservative Republicans and disaffected bourbon Democrats.

Holton suffered his defeat with a measure of self-deprecation, saying that – by vote of the convention – he had become an elder statesman.

Who would plant fruit trees.

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