How The South Became Republican Part IV: South Carolina & Alabama

This post starts the Deep South portion of this series. These states are distinguishable from the Peripheral South as they were slower to vote Republican, their reasons for becoming disaffected from national Democrats were more racial, and all of them voted for at least one of the following tickets: Thurmond/Wright in 1948, Goldwater/Miller in 1964, and Wallace/LeMay in 1968. The 1948 campaign was explicitly a reaction to the civil rights movement, the 1964 vote was against Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Wallace campaign was for voters who didn’t support the civil rights stances of Nixon or Humphrey. The whole area returned to the Democratic fold to vote for Carter in 1976 as they were following tradition. Although Reagan won the electoral vote of the region, he lost the popular vote by over 100,000 as Georgia voted for Carter by 14 points while the other states narrowly voted for Reagan. The region became reliably Republican on the presidential level by 1984, as subsequent elections gave Republican candidates a majority of the popular vote.

South Carolina

Strom Thurmond, the senator who switched to Republican and started the transition of the state to the GOP.

In 1928, if you were to tell a South Carolina voter that in 36 years their state would not only vote for the Republican candidate for president but also have a Republican senator, they would think you were a lunatic. And why wouldn’t said voter think this? After all, that year 91% of the state’s voters supported Democrat Al Smith, his best performance in the nation. The state last voted Republican in 1876 and the state regularly backed Democratic candidates by over 90% if not over 95% of the vote. The state’s last Republican senator left office in 1879 and the last Republican member of the House from the state was black and had left office in 1897. The state also had two race-baiting demagogues in Democratic Senators Coleman Blease and “Cotton Ed” Smith at the time. If you lived in South Carolina at the time, odds are you didn’t know anyone who voted Republican, and whatever people voted Republican were the very small number of blacks who managed to vote in spite of Jim Crow laws. However, there was another factor behind this Democratic vote: the absence of a secret ballot. The result of this was potential and actual intimidation of anyone who strayed from the Democratic line. However, there are three consistencies of life: death, taxes, and change.

This change would not come in immediate elections: in the next one FDR would win with 98% of the vote and would overwhelmingly win reelection in the state thrice. However, the pivotal year for the state was 1948 and the issue was race. That year, President Harry S. Truman announced his support for a civil rights program that included anti-poll tax and anti-lynching legislation, army desegregation, and a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee. That year, Truman won only 24% of the vote in the state, a 63-point decline from FDR’s 1944 victory. 72% of the vote went to Governor Strom Thurmond, who was running on the State’s Rights Party platform and pledged to maintain segregation. Although Truman only managed to accomplish the start of army desegregation, the politics of South Carolina had changed for good. In 1948, Republican Thomas E. Dewey only won less than 4% of the state’s vote, but the situation was different in 1952 as Dwight Eisenhower had won two influential supporters in the state: James F. Byrnes, who had previously been a staunch ally of FDR, and Strom Thurmond. Although the two men were not Republicans yet, Byrnes formed the organization “Independents for Eisenhower” and at that time the state had finally instituted the secret ballot. The results were astonishing: although Democrat Adlai Stevenson won the state, Eisenhower won 49% of the state’s vote, by far the best performance for a Republican since Rutherford B. Hayes’s victory in 1876.

A clear division arose in the state between the northern and southern portions of the state. The northern was working class and poor and tended to vote Democrat while the southern portion was wealthier and tended to vote Republican. However, in 1956 Eisenhower’s percent of the vote declined to 29.5% due to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the existence of the independent slate of “unpledged electors” who supported States’ Rights Party candidate T. Coleman Andrews. Stevenson won the state by a plurality. In 1960, the state voted for JFK, but he won by less than 3% of the vote. The election that would turn the state Republican for presidential elections was 1964.

In 1964, the GOP nominated staunch conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for president, and that year he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of six Senate Republicans to do so. This, combined with Strom Thurmond’s strong support and switch to the Republican Party, was enough for Goldwater to win the state with 59% of the vote. The following year, Congressman Albert W. Watson of the 2nd district switched to the Republican Party after being stripped of his seniority for publicly supporting Goldwater. The state stands out among Deep South states for being the only one to vote for Republican Richard Nixon in 1968. While the rest of the Deep South voted for American Independent George Wallace, Senator Strom Thurmond gave his strong support to Nixon, which was instrumental to him winning the state. However, as regularly occurred with southern states, the results didn’t translate to the state and local level yet. In 1970, Watson, a protégé of Thurmond’s, ran a segregationist campaign for governor while the Democrat, John C. West, pursued a campaign of racial moderation. West’s victory in the election sent a message to Southern politicians that race-baiting was no longer a winning strategy and Thurmond understood it. In 1971, he was the first Southern senator to hire a black staffer, Thomas Moss, to coordinate the direction of federal money to black institutions and communities. This strategy of accommodation to the state’s black population prevented any strong political challenges to him and he comfortably won reelection until he retired from the Senate at the age of 100. Thurmond proved a successful self-interested political pragmatist. The one exception to South Carolina’s Republican trend was 1976, as Jimmy Carter was a Southern Democrat and proved more influential for the voters of the state than Thurmond and he won by 13% of the vote. Carter maintained a level of popularity in the state that resulted in Reagan winning the state by only 1.5% in 1980. However, the 1984 election cemented South Carolina as a Republican state, with Reagan winning reelection there by over 63% o the vote.

On the state level, the GOP has held the governorship for all but 12 years since 1975 but it wasn’t until 1994 that the State House flipped to Republican and 2002 that the State Senate did the same. Thurmond had proved influential on national politics, but not state. The gradual progression of the Democrats further to the left and the GOP further to the right gave South Carolina voters less and less reasons to back Democrats. The GOP currently holds an 80-44 majority in the former and a 27-19 majority in the latter. Both Senate seats have been held by Republicans since 2005 and the congressional delegation currently stands 5-2 GOP.


James D. Martin, the first major Republican statewide candidate since Reconstruction.

Like other Deep South states, Alabama briefly went Republican during Reconstruction as freedmen were voting while many ex-Confederates were denied suffrage. In 1876, the state turned back to the Democrats and then elected John Tyler Morgan to the Senate. Morgan was a former slaveowner and Confederate officer and with Edmund Pettus he would be instrumental in making Alabama a Jim Crow state. However, the state had a hiccup along the way.

In 1892, three parties won electoral votes. While Democrat Grover Cleveland prevailed nationally and in Alabama, Populist James B. Weaver had a stronger than expected performance in the Deep South and won numerous counties, and Alabama was the Deep South state in which the party had most traction. The 1894 midterms, which were catastrophic for the Democrats due to an economic depression, produced a House delegation after contested elections were settled of 5 Democrats, 2 Republicans, and 2 Populists. The popularity of the Populist Party and the prospect of a Republican-Populist coalition gaining power freaked out the Democratic establishment and served as additional justification for Jim Crow restrictions. The last Republican of the period, William F. Aldrich, left Congress in 1901, the same year the state adopted its Jim Crow constitution. The Democratic Party had a solid run of control of the state for the next 61 years but with one hiccup in between. In 1928, Herbert Hoover came close to winning Alabama, losing by less than three points. He was assisted by the endorsement by Senator Tom Heflin, who objected to Al Smith as he was Catholic and opposed Prohibition. This endorsement would cost Heflin renomination in 1930 and the state would go back to voting solidly Democratic, as all but staunchly Republican Winston County would vote for FDR four times. Both of Alabama’s senators in the 1930s were staunch New Dealers and one of them, Hugo Black, was rewarded for his support by being nominated and confirmed as a justice of the Supreme Court. Although the politics of Alabama were undergoing a shift right starting in the 1940s, there was still a substantial progressive wing in the state’s party, which included Senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman as well as Congressmen Carl Elliott, Albert Rains, Kenneth Roberts, and Robert Jones. However, what unified the state’s conservative and progressive wings was support for Jim Crow and this was going to be tested.

In 1948, President Truman’s embrace of civil rights resulted in the state outright not placing him on the ballot that year, with Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond standing as the Democratic nominee. Like Roosevelt, he won all but Winston County. In 1952, although Eisenhower lost the state he won 35% of the vote and improved by 4 points in 1956. It certainly didn’t hurt the Democrats that the 1952 VP nominee was Alabama Senator John Sparkman. Although more voters were willing to vote Republican, the majority of the state’s voters were not yet willing to break with tradition. In 1960, the state’s electors split their votes: six voted for conservative Democrat Senator Harry F. Byrd and five voted for John F. Kennedy. The continuing national push for civil rights would result in the rise of a politician who became the national face of segregation: George C. Wallace.

No discussion of the politics of Alabama is complete without Wallace and although he had initially taken a moderate tone on race in the 1958 gubernatorial primary, this had cost him the nomination. In 1962, Wallace tried again, but this time adopting a hardline stance on segregation and won. At his inaugural address on January 14, 1963, he pledged “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever”. That same election also demonstrated that Alabama would not necessarily be a guarantee for Democrats in the future in its Senate race.

Lister Hill had been a fixture in federal politics since 1923, first as a representative and then as a senator. He had a long reputation of being a progressive, supporting the New Deal and the Fair Deal, but the politics of Alabama were beginning to turn against larger government programs in general in addition to its traditional opposition to civil rights. In 1962, Republican James D. Martin challenged incumbent Democrat Lister Hill, focusing on opposition to “big government”, denouncing the use of federal troops by the Kennedy Administration to desegregate Ole Miss University, and tying him to John F. Kennedy whenever possible. Although Hill won reelection, Martin got 49% of the vote. This was a stunning result considering that Hill had been unchallenged in his last race, and he chose to retire in 1968 rather than face another potentially tough campaign. Fellow Senator John Sparkman shifted his record somewhat rightward to accommodate the Wallace trend of the state.

George Wallace initially thought he’d challenge John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1964, but by this time he would be facing Lyndon B. Johnson and the memory of JFK and he decided to bow out. Since Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and LBJ signed the measure into law, this was enough to necessitate a political earthquake in the state: it voted 69.5% for the Republican, the first time it had done so since 1872. The remainder of the state’s vote went to “unpledged electors” and LBJ wasn’t even placed on the ballot. The 1964 election also resulted in a flip of House seats from 8-0 Democrat to 5-3 Republican, wiping out all Alabama Democratic progressives in the House save for Robert E. Jones, and he shifted his record somewhat rightward in the remainder of his time in the House to accommodate the trends of the state. Of the five new Republicans, three managed to be continually reelected: Jack Edwards of Mobile, Bill Dickinson of Montgomery, and John Buchanan of Birmingham. James D. Martin had been part of this group, but he had been too ambitious in trying to run against Lurleen Wallace for governor in 1966 and his political career subsequently stalled.  In 1968, neither Democrat Humphrey nor Republican Nixon backed segregation so Wallace ran for president as the American Independent Party candidate. He won five of six Deep South states, and in Alabama he had his best performance with 65.9% of the vote as a “native son” candidate, winning all but three counties. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” had not won him the Deep South, but he pulled off over 72% of the vote in the next election since his opposition was George McGovern, a staunchly liberal Democrat who was thought of as the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion”. However, Nixon benefited from the absence of the American Independent Party as a major force: Wallace was forced to bow out of the Democratic primary after an assassination attempt rendered him paralyzed from the waist down. The AIP’s candidate was instead John G. Schmitz, an extreme rightist Republican from Orange County. Had Wallace carried some influence on the outcome of the Democratic primary, Nixon may not have done nearly so well in the state.

Nixon’s win didn’t translate into an immediate shift of the state to Republicans as Democrats still held all statewide offices, 5 of 8 House seats, and both Senate seats. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the mid-1970s had resulted in the black vote becoming a significant factor in the state, and they mostly voted Democrat which helped continue Democratic dominance on the state and local level. The Democrats of the state were George Wallace supporters and this showed in 1976, when the state voted by 12 points for Jimmy Carter, who was endorsed by Wallace. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the state by a little over a point and Republican war hero Jeremiah Denton was elected to the Senate, the first to be elected since Reconstruction. The state had a hard time of letting go of its Democratic affiliation despite its now permanent support for Republican presidential candidates: in 1982 the GOP’s share of the House delegation went down to two and Denton narrowly lost reelection in 1986. However, that same year the first Republican governor of Alabama since Reconstruction, Guy Hunt, was elected, succeeding the retiring Wallace. The Democrats have only held the governorship for six years since. What brought the state to the GOP in the end was the liberal presidency of Bill Clinton that produced the 1994 midterms and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”. The results of the election resulted in Senator Richard Shelby switching from Democrat to Republican and after the 1996 elections the GOP held both Senate seats and 5-2 in the House delegation. In 2010, the GOP finally won both chambers in the State Assembly and has only gained seats since. The state’s House delegation today stands at 6-1 while the state has a Democrat and a Republican senator. However, this Senate arrangement is unlikely to last past the 2020 election, as the GOP had an abnormally weak candidate in Judge Roy Moore in the 2017 special election.

Alabama’s transition from Democrat to Republican as a state took 35 years, 1962 to 1997, as tradition died hard with enough white voters in the state combined with black voters favoring Democrats. The presence of George Wallace as a force in Alabama politics until 1987 also contributed to the party’s continued dominance on the state level. On the state level, the voters still thought of many Democrats as conservative enough to earn their votes until 2010.

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