David Bowers with his wife, Margarita, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Bowers.
David Bowers with his wife, Margarita, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Bowers.

Republicans have reeled in a party-switcher who was at one time one of the most popular Democrats in Roanoke. Now what?

I refer, of course, to former Mayor David Bowers’ recent announcement that he’s left the Democratic Party and now considers himself a Republican. (Since Virginia doesn’t register voters by party, there’s no paperwork involved, so that’s why I use the verb “considers.”) No other news was forthcoming, but Bowers said that many people have asked him to run for mayor next year, so it seems safe to assume that this is simply the first step. At some point, I’d expect Bowers to declare he’s seeking the Republican nomination for Roanoke mayor in 2024.

What are his prospects? Today I’ll take a look.

Some in Roanoke may well dismiss the 71-year-old Bowers’ change of parties on the grounds that it simply doesn’t matter because they believe his time has passed. We’ll get to that, along with some relevant voting returns. First, though, before readers from outside Roanoke bail out, let’s put this in a broader context that might matter well beyond the Star City. Whether Bowers has any political future left in him or not, his decision to switch parties is important because it’s emblematic of larger trends playing out nationally: the realignment of working-class voters from a Democratic constituency into a Republican one.

David Bowers. Courtesy of Bowers.
David Bowers. Courtesy of Bowers.

For those not familiar with Bowers, here’s a quick sketch. He has always considered John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt as his heroes and over the years has often called himself a “New Deal” Democrat, long after that started to date him. It was partly Bowers’ affection for Roosevelt that led him into the biggest controversy of his long political career in Roanoke: justifying his 2015 opposition to resettling Syrian refugees in the city by citing Roosevelt’s decision to sequester Japanese nationals (and American citizens of Japanese heritage) as a positive example.

One thing has been consistent in Bowers’ time in politics, which dates back to his 1984 election to the Roanoke City Council: He’s always positioned himself as the champion of the little guy. Whether he really has been, or whether the policies he’s pursued are wise, may be a matter of debate, as they are with any politician, but his persona has undoubtedly always been that of a blue-collar champion.

When Bowers won the Democratic nomination for mayor over councilman Howard Musser in 1992, The Roanoke Times reported that “Bowers won the mayoral nomination by tapping into Roanoke’s latent class resentment, then by channeling workers’ anger toward ‘the big boys’ through an unprecedented organizational effort by labor unions — who turned out not only union households but also many non-union working-class voters.”

The reporter on hand that day went on to describe the event this way:

It was clear even before the mass meeting started … that Bowers had touched a chord with working-class voters in Roanoke. Folks who ordinarily wouldn’t pay attention to local politics suddenly were paying attention. More important, they were showing up for a party meeting, turning what often is an insiders’ affair into a victory …

When the cafeteria doors at William Fleming High School opened at 9 a.m. for registration, the school grounds already were jammed with what looked much like a workers’ Woodstock. A huge union banner proclaiming ‘Solidarity’ was strung over the parking lot. Big-shouldered men with union caps and wind breakers bearing the initials of their trades — IUE, IBEW, IAFF — positioned themselves on the curb and kept an eagle-eye on the people pouring in. The labor organizers carefully checked the turnout against clipboards full of names, and made sure everyone had a copy of labor’s sample ballot: Bowers for mayor, Renee Anderson and Jim Trout for two of the three council seats. Folk singer Curly Ennis strolled through the crowd, strumming the New Deal anthem ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ and an old Woody Guthrie tune, ‘Union Made.’

“At 9 sharp, a Holiday Express bus bearing a ‘Roanoke Firefighters Association’ banner rolled up, and more than 60 firefighters briskly stepped off to cheers from their union brothers. It was an impressive show of force, just as it was meant to be.”

(Who wrote those insightful words back then? Umm, I did.)

What was driving all that anger more than three decades ago? The use of out-of-town labor to construct two new buildings downtown. I wrote back then: Many of the attendees at that Democratic mass meeting “almost snarled ‘North Carolina and Mexico’ as if they were curse words when talking about the origin of the out-of-towners who erected the two newest landmarks in the Roanoke skyline.”

As I look back on that story 31 years later, I am struck by several things: The issues roiling Roanoke then — at least those who turned out for that Democratic mass meeting in February 1992 — are similar to the ones that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. The main difference is that back then that working-class anger was channeled through the Democratic Party; now it often is channeled through Republicans.

I’ll also point out that there was absolutely nothing that any Roanoke mayor could do about who the contractors were on those two privately owned buildings, just as there’s nothing that any president can do about the larger transformations of the economy from an industrial age into a post-industrial one. King Canute cannot command the tides. A lot of politics, though, is symbolic and Bowers successfully made himself a symbol of working-class resentment against, well, somebody. In two recent elections — the mayor’s race in 2020 and a council race in 2022 — Bowers ran as an independent but held true to his earlier symbolism. In that 2022 council race, his slogan was “Bowers stands up for us on council.” It wasn’t specified who the “us” was, or who the unspoken “them” might be, but presumably voters knew. Bowers has been a master of “us versus them” politics.

In his party-switching statement, Bowers said that the Democratic Party of today is not the Democratic Party he grew up in. I’m not sure Bowers has changed his views very much; more likely he’s like former Democrat Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left me.”

The demographics of the two parties have certainly changed over time, with blue-collar workers, who once were the bedrock of the Democratic Party, becoming more and more Republican. In changing parties, Bowers is simply following his supporters.

Through much of our post-World War II history, non-college-educated white voters were the biggest voting bloc in the Democratic Party. By 2020, that constituency had fallen to third place, according to American National Election Studies, while non-college-educated non-whites moved into first and college-educated whites moved into second. As recently as 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney almost evenly split the vote among those with college degrees (Obama won 50% to 48%, according to Pew Research.) By 2020, Joe Biden took 61% among those with college degrees, while Trump took 56% among those with a high school diploma or less. Those are all imperfect ways to quantify terms such as “white collar” or “blue collar,” but they will have to do.

We can see this nationally in the realignment of certain states. California used to be a Republican state as recently as 1988; now it’s a solidly Democratic one. West Virginia used to be predictably Democratic; now it’s the second most Republican state in the country.

We can see it within Virginia. The Northern Virginia suburbs used to trend Republican; now they’re overwhelmingly Democratic. Buena Vista once was such a Democratic hotbed that the party’s candidates were expected to be there on Labor Day to take part in the city’s parade; now that tradition is long since gone.

Finally, we can see it in Roanoke. As recently as 1996, the precincts in the working-class southeastern part of the city voted Democratic; now those are Republican ones. We saw this most clearly in last year’s special election for the city council that pitted Democrat Luke Priddy against Republican Peg McGuire. While she lost the election, she won many precincts that once were considered Democratic ones, particularly in Southeast Roanoke and along Williamson Road, while Priddy carried precincts in more affluent Raleigh Court that once were generally Republican. The election map they produced is quite common now but would have been impossible just a few decades ago:

Here's how the precincts voted in the special election between Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire. Priddy won she won half the city's precincts. Map by Robert Lunsford.
Here’s how the precincts voted in the special election between Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire. Priddy won half the city’s precincts. Map by Robert Lunsford.

Democrats insist that their policies are better for working-class voters — pro-union, higher minimum wage and so forth — yet working-class voters themselves disagree. Part of this is no doubt cultural and we see this play out in other ways, including the whole hullabaloo over the “Rich Men North of Richmond” singer Oliver Anthony. Liberals eviscerated Anthony for some of his cultural views but said his economic complaints should make him a Democrat. As a political analyst, I find it fascinating to watch this realignment play out with both parties — Democrats are losing voters they’ve historically claimed to represent but Republicans are gaining voters who may have economic views that are at odds with many of the party’s historic positions.

Those are the larger issues that Bowers’ change in parties raises. Now, how about the specifics? Would running as a Republican enable him to return the mayorship in 2024? Let’s run through some facts and figures.

Roanoke has not elected a Republican to city council in nearly a quarter-century.

In 2000, Bill Carder led the balloting for the city council and Ralph Smith was elected mayor in a four-way race where he needed just 35.4% of the vote to win. In some years, Republicans haven’t fielded any candidates for council; they’ve had no candidate for mayor since 2012. In the past few cycles, Republicans have fielded full slates, but those candidates were too far to the right to win in Roanoke, a city that usually votes about 60% Democratic. If Roanoke Republicans were inclined to overlook Bowers’ past transgressions as a Democrat, he would offer a different look for the party.

Bowers’ popularity has been declining over time.

He won the mayorship in 1992 with 57% of the vote, was reelected with 55% in 1996, then lost in 2000 with 30.5%. He returned to office in 2008 with 54% and was reelected in 2012 with 52%. He retired before the 2016 election but then ran as an independent in 2020 and polled 46.7% of the vote. He ran for council in 2020 as an independent and finished seventh in a field of nine. He said then: “Maybe my time has come and gone.” Of course, he also said when he retired in 2016: “The only cure for political fever is embalming fluid.” Bowers is very much still among the living. Roanoke is changing and one of the criticisms of him in that 2016 retirement story was that he represents the “old Roanoke” not the “new Roanoke.” On the other hand, he’s also been one of the most resilient politicians I’ve ever seen. Some of us thought he was finished after the 2000 race, when he finished third out of four, but he found a way to come back and win twice more after that. Does he have another comeback in him?

The November election schedule works against Republicans.

If Roanoke still elected its mayor and city council in May, the dynamics would be quite different. Instead, Roanoke’s next mayoral election will coincide with the 2024 presidential election. If Republicans foolishly nominate Donald Trump again, then their mayoral candidate in 2024 will be running on the same ballot with a candidate who took 37.5% of the vote in 2016 and 36.0% in 2020. Could Bowers — or any mayoral candidate — run that far ahead of Trump in 2024? If Republicans more wisely nominate someone other than Trump, that would greatly improve their chances for the White House, but not necessarily the mayorship of Roanoke. The last pre-Trumpian Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney, took just 37.3% in Roanoke in 2012. John McCain took 37.8% in 2008 — not really any different from what Trump did in Roanoke. In the end, it may not matter who Republicans nominate for president next year, the party’s mayoral candidate would need to run well ahead of that nominee to win. How realistic is that in an era of straight-ticket voting?

Those are three big negatives, but despite those, it’s easy to see Bowers looking at those 2020 results where he polled 46.7% as an independent and concluding if he’d had Republican backing he might have won. That year he ran to the right of incumbent Sherman Lea and spent a lot of time trying to appeal to Republican voters, but how many of them were put off by the fact that he wasn’t one of them? We know some were. At one point, Bowers appeared at a pro-police rally organized by Republicans. The Roanoke Times reported at the time: “Bowers faced some skeptics in the audience. As he approached the stage, one person exclaimed with dismay that he was a Democrat.” That’s a problem he’s now fixed.

There are lots of questions we don’t know the answer to yet: Will Sherman Lea seek a third term or retire? If he retires, who would Democrats nominate in his stead? And if Bowers does, indeed, run for mayor for a seventh time, would he bring voters to the Republican Party that Republicans haven’t had? Or will we see multiple candidates splitting the vote, allowing Bowers to win as a Republican with less than a majority just as Smith did in 2000? A multi-candidate field might be the ideal scenario for a Bowers comeback.

Only Roanokers may care about that, but on election night 2024, we’ll all be paying attention to the realignment of the two parties nationally as we watch the presidential votes come in. 

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...