How The South Became Republican, Part II: Tennessee & North Carolina

Before I continue with this series, I should make clear that when I refer to the South, I am referring to former Confederate states, thus not including Kentucky and Oklahoma.


Howard Baker Jr., R-Tenn., 1967-85, the state’s first popularly elected Republican senator.

The state of Tennessee has been historically odd as far as former Confederate states go. For instance, there was a substantial political difference between East Tennessee and the rest of the state. East Tennessee had a history of supporting Whig Party candidates and the rest of the state tended to like Democrats. This transferred over to the post-Civil War period, in which Democrats took back their portion of the state while Republicans ruled East Tennessee. However, East Tennessee only consisted of the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, which are centered in Johnson City and Knoxville respectively. The 1st district has remained in Republican hands continuously since 1881 and the 2nd has been represented by a member of the Republican Party since 1859. This area was much different from the rest of Tennessee on civil rights as well: in 1922 the sole “yea” votes from the state on the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill came from the representatives of East Tennessee. From 1875 to 1967 with only one brief exception all the state’s senators were Democrats. A senator emblematic of Tennessee’s political state after Reconstruction was Isham G. Harris, a former slave owner who as the state’s governor had led the state out of the union and had been wanted after the Civil War for treason. The state would remain solidly in Democratic hands but in 1920 the state voted for Republican Warren G. Harding, the first time the state had voted Republican since 1868. Republicans were also elected to Congress from three districts that were usually solidly Democrat. Democrats would win all three back in the 1922 midterms.

The state would again vote Republican in 1928 as Herbert Hoover managed to pull off the first “Southern Strategy”. However, the Great Depression delayed a Republican shift, and Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to win over 60% of the vote every election. However, like with many other former Confederate states, the start of change was in 1948. That year, although Harry S. Truman won the state, he won with less than 50% of the vote because of his embrace of a civil rights program. Eisenhower barely won the state in 1952 and 1956 but Nixon managed to pull off an over 7-point win in 1960. Although 1964 was a setback for the GOP on the presidential level as Goldwater lost the state partly due to his stating that he wanted to sell the Tennessee Valley Authority, there were promising signs for the party. Democrats held both Senate seats in the elections that year, but the elections were much closer than in the past: Albert Gore Sr. had been reelected in 1958 by 60 points, but this year he won by 7 points. The next four years would be rough for the Democrats, as Tennessee voters strongly disapproved of the Johnson Administration on multiple fronts, including on civil rights, its handling of the Vietnam War, and the Great Society. In 1966, the state’s voters elected Republican Howard Baker Jr. to the Senate, who proved to be pro-civil rights and moderately conservative. He would eventually lead his party in the Senate from 1977 to 1985, with him being Majority Leader for the last four years. The 1968 election itself constituted an immense backlash against the Johnson Administration as Democrat Hubert Humphrey came in third in the state with only 28% of the vote, with Republican Richard Nixon edging American Independent George Wallace by three points. This was Humphrey’s fifth worst performance in the nation.

Although the GOP had a longer historical presence in the state, it was slower to be a solid state than Virginia on a national level. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the state by over 10 points and Democrat Jim Sasser defeated Republican incumbent Senator William Brock for reelection. The following election year, Reagan barely won the state, but in 1984 and 1988 Republicans won the state by over 57%. In 1992 and 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton managed to win the state, both times with a plurality. In 2000, the state voted for Bush by about 4 points despite it being Al Gore’s home state and the state has been voting with greater margins for Republicans on the presidential level since. In 2016, Trump won over 60% of the vote and Clinton got less than 35%, the worst Democratic performance in the state since McGovern in 1972. As was the case in many southern states, the Congressional delegation and the state legislature was slow to shift party allegiance. From 1875 to 1995 with the exception of the 67th and 93rd Congresses, Democrats dominated the House delegation, and from 1995 to 2011, the delegation was divided, but after the 2010 midterms, Republicans have held 7 of 9 of the state’s House seats. The state has also been represented in the Senate by two Republicans since 1995. In 2005, the voters elected a Republican majority to the State Senate, which after Reconstruction they had done only once before. In 2008, the voters elected a Republican majority to the State Assembly, which they had only held once before after Reconstruction. Today, the state legislature is overwhelmingly Republican: of the 28 of 33 of the State Senate’s members are Republican, as are 73 of the 99 members of the General Assembly. In twenty years, the state went from competitive to solidly Republican. Tennessee is now even more of a Republican state than Massachusetts is a Democratic state according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, with Democrats only maintaining strongholds in Nashville and Memphis.

North Carolina

Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), 1973-2003, the state’s first popularly elected Republican senator.

Republicans never were completely absent from politics in North Carolina even after Reconstruction, as they were sometimes able to win an election here and there and they even had a brief resurgence in the 1890s. The Republicans and the Populists worked together to take down Democratic rule, which they managed to do for a few years. In 1896, Republican Daniel Lindsay Russell was elected governor and reduced property requirements for voting. Populist Marion Butler and Republican Jeter Pritchard were also elected to the Senate. The Republican-Populist fusion fell out of power since the 1898 midterm elections, which were a referendum on race, produced a Democratic majority in the state legislature. The following year they voted to ratify a Jim Crow constitution that disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. A horrific incident that symbolized the entrenchment of white supremacy in the state (as well as the South as a whole) was the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, the only coup d’état in American history and the most severe race riot in the state’s history led by former Democratic Congressman Alfred Waddell. The result was the forced resignation of the entire Fusionist board of aldermen and Wilmington’s Republican mayor, the deaths of anywhere between 8 and 100 black residents and the fleeing of hundreds more from the city. A new board of aldermen took over and Waddell became the mayor. The cause of the only coup d’état in American history was the incendiary reaction of Democratic “red shirts” to an editorial in the city’s black newspaper that asserted that sexual relations between black men and white women were consensual. Russell, who had unsuccessfully tried to stop the riot with the State Guard (which sided with the rioters) didn’t run for reelection and Butler and Pritchard were defeated for reelection. The last black Congressman of the 19th century, Republican George White of the state’s 2nd district, didn’t run for reelection in 1900 as he knew that he wouldn’t win. The state’s GOP was crippled and subsequently put up white candidates and didn’t aim to court the black vote, which was now negligible due to Jim Crow voting laws.

The state’s delegation to Congress was far more often than not entirely Democratic but in 1928, the state voted for Herbert Hoover by almost 10 points, the first time it had voted Republican since black voters gave Ulysses S. Grant the win in 1872. Progress for the GOP in the state, however, was stalled by the Great Depression but its two senators were not exactly ideal for progressives: Josiah W. Bailey was one of the authors of the anti-New Deal “Conservative Manifesto” and Robert R. Reynolds was a staunch non-interventionist who turned against the New Deal in the 1940s. By the end of World War II, its elected officials tended to be moderate to conservative Democrats. However, the state didn’t bolt the Democratic fold for the 1948 election despite Harry S. Truman’s support of civil rights, and State’s Rights candidate Strom Thurmond got just under 9% of the vote. Although the state didn’t vote for Eisenhower in 1952 or 1956, it elected its first Republican Congressman who would be regularly reelected, Charles R. Jonas.

The voters of the state and their elected officials in the 1960s opposed civil rights legislation, but it was not as vehement as in Deep South states. The state stayed Democratic in 1964 and voted for Nixon rather than Wallace in 1968. After 1968, North Carolina would only vote Democrat twice: for Carter in 1976 and Obama in 2008 as the voters opposed the national party’s increasingly liberal platform and its stance on the Vietnam War. In 1972, the state elected its first Republican to the Senate by popular vote: Jesse Helms. Helms proved to be one of the most conservative people to ever serve in the chamber and gained the moniker “Senator No” for his frequent obstruction of liberal legislation and State Department nominees (of both parties) which was aided by his mastery of the Senate rules. Despite his penchant for divisiveness, his consistent opposition to civil rights legislation, and strong Democratic efforts to oust him, he won reelection four times often with the support of people we know as “Reagan Democrats”. Helms also proved crucial in keeping Ronald Reagan’s political career alive: in 1976, he was one of only two senators supporting him for the GOP nomination and his influence won him the North Carolina primary, which resulted in more primary victories and kept the nominee in doubt until the Republican National Convention. Although Reagan didn’t win the nomination, Helms’s influence ensured he would be the presumptive favorite for the 1980 election. The 1980 election resulted in the state having two Republican senators in Helms and his ideological twin John Porter East. Despite regular voter support for Republican candidates in presidential elections, the GOP was slow to win state, local, and congressional elections on a similar scale and Democrats managed to win Senate races in 1986, 1998, and 2008. Democrats dominated the House delegation until after the 1994 midterms and a Republican majority in the delegation wasn’t cemented until the 2012 election with the assistance of redistricting. The state has also since the start of the 20th century only elected three Republican governors, and the current one is Democrat Roy Cooper. The state legislature was also quite slow to become majority Republican: in 2010, the state’s voters for the first time since 1870 elected a Republican majority for both state legislative chambers and they have been in control since. Although North Carolina leans Republican and the GOP currently holds both Senate seats as well as 9 of the state’s 13 House districts, it isn’t necessarily out of reach for Democrats and a bad presidential election year for the Republican Party could swing the vote of the state to the Democrats.

3 thoughts on “How The South Became Republican, Part II: Tennessee & North Carolina

  1. Excellent entry as usual, FascinatingPolitics! I should note that since you published this, the NC congressional delegation has become less Republican due to redistricting which resulted in the 2nd and 6th districts becoming solidly Democrat-favoring.

    Also, if you have the time, can you please publish an article about the Pritchard and Jonas families of North Carolina? I especially would be interested to know of George M. Pritchard was in the mold of traditional pro-civil rights Southern Republicans or a forerunner to the “new wave” which included some closet Democrat segregationists. The younger Pritchard, who only served one term in the House, unsuccessfully ran against Josiah Bailey in the 1930 Senate races where he ultimately charged election fraud. Another interesting topic to cover is why Charles R. Jonas consistently voted against civil rights legislation though did not sign the Southern Manifesto in addition to supporting the 24th Amendment, something I have yet to find further details about.


    1. Thanks! I’m sorry to say that for George M. Pritchard, he refused to have his office next to Oscar De Priest’s (R-Ill.)! Charles R. Jonas did seem to have softened on civil rights after the Johnson Administration and seems to me to have been one of those people who favored strictly remedies regarding government-sanctioned discrimination. He may have been one of those people who would have supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on final passage if it was the Ford-McCulloch substitute, but I’d need to do more research to find if that’s true, perhaps in the future article on the Jonas and Pritchard families! Thanks for the idea. I’m Mike, by the way.

      1. Interesting, I didn’t know previously that the younger Pritchard was antagonistic towards De Priest. Perhaps this has to do with some political influence from his father, who I believe participated in the lily-white movement following the Jim Crow Democrat takeover of NC? As for Jonas, I probably should examine some more roll call votes to get a better idea of his civil rights record beyond the main legislation between 1957 and 1968.

        And I appreciate you considering my suggestion, Mike!

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