How The South Became Republican Part V: Mississippi and Georgia

Mississippi

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Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, the first Republicans to represent Mississippi in the Senate since Reconstruction.

Mississippi had a particularly tumultuous time of Reconstruction. For the whites of the state it was jarring to say the least that the first black person ever elected to the Senate, Hiram Revels, was from their state. However, this state of affairs could only be maintained with troops, and when they left and more former Confederates had their voting rights restored, they proceeded to solidify power and disenfranchise black voters and use methods legal and illegal to enforce white supremacy. The last Republican of the 19th century left Congress in 1885. Mississippi did produce a number of progressives in the time of Democratic dominance, including Governor and Senator James K. Vardaman, a racist demagogue who appealed to the poor Hill whites of the state. In 1928, the state was second only to South Carolina in its continuing loyalty to the Democratic nominee. But like South Carolina, a 1928 voter would shocked to know how the state would vote in 1964.

Even into the 1930s, Mississippi’s politics were progressive in character: Senator Pat Harrison could be counted as one of FDR’s strongest supporters and he was joined in the chamber in 1935 by Theodore Bilbo, a racist demagogue who also was also a staunch New Dealer. However, the first signs of dissatisfaction with the direction of the Democratic Party became evident with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which all but one the House delegation opposed, as it undercut a way the state could be competitive in interstate commerce: low prices. In the early 1940s, Mississippi’s politicians became substantively more conservative. Two cases of particular note are Congressmen John Rankin and Dan McGehee. Rankin, a racist and anti-Semitic demagogue who had served in the House since 1921, had voted early and often against the Republican economic policies of the 1920s, sponsored the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, and was populistic in his thinking. McGehee, who was elected in 1934, was initially a staunch supporter of the New Deal. In the latter’s first term in the 74th Congress, he scored a 16% rating on my conservative index, but in his last in the 79th Congress, he scored a 90%. This stunning ideological change came about before Truman’s civil rights announcement. Rankin’s score in the same period of time had shifted from a 17% to an 87%. The change in the state’s ideology was also reflected by the rise of Senator James Eastland, who I have covered before. He unified the interests of the Delta and Hill areas of the state, which had typically been at odds on labor issues. Truman’s civil rights support in 1948 shifted the state easily to Thurmond, but unlike Alabama, Truman remained on the ballot. Thurmond took 87% of the vote, which foreshadowed a future election. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower won almost 40% of the vote, but Republicans still had quite a way to go before making significant headway in the state. In 1960, the state defied the national Democratic Party and voted for “unpledged electors”, who voted for Senator Harry Byrd, a conservative Democrat from Virginia who had instituted “massive resistance” to desegregation in his state which meant the closing down of public schools to avoid it.

In 1962, Ole Miss was desegregated with the use of federal troops when James Meredith, a black man, wanted to attend and this resulted in riots from some local whites. However, it was primarily the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that decided the state’s vote. That year, Republican Barry Goldwater won a whopping 87% of the vote and all of the state’s counties, his best performance. That year, Republican Prentiss Walker defeated incumbent conservative Democrat Congressman William Winstead. The result on the Congressional level was partly thanks to the efforts of GOP state chair Wirt Yerger, who had at the age of 26 resurrected the party in 1956 on a platform of conservatism. Although many in the state’s Republican Party were segregationists, the party punted on the issue in its platform, holding it to be a matter to be addressed by the states. Any political force that wanted to be relevant in the state had to oppose federal action on civil rights, as they did in the other states of the former Confederacy.

After building up an uncompromisingly conservative record in the House, Walker decided to run for the Senate in 1966 against Eastland. Both campaigned as segregationists, but Eastland had the most convincing record. Additionally, newly enfranchised black voters didn’t really impact the election as they split their votes. 1964 was kind of a false start for the state’s Republican Party as it produced merely a temporary boost. In 1968, the state predictably went for Wallace and had a 100% Democratic delegation. In 1972, however, all counties in the state voted for Nixon and two Republicans were elected to Congress: Thad Cochran and Trent Lott. Cochran and Lott were the real starting politicians for the state’s Republican Party and they were regularly reelected. Cochran played better with black voters than Lott as he had no connection with segregationist Democrats while Lott had been segregationist Congressman William Colmer’s chief of staff. For two presidential election cycles after Mississippi was a swing state: in 1976 its voters narrowly went for Carter thanks to the support of Senators Eastland and Stennis and two years later it elected its first Republican to the Senate since Reconstruction: Thad Cochran. In 1980 the state narrowly went for Reagan and it has been presidentially in the GOP column since, but its Congressional delegation and state legislators took longer to shift.

From 1989 to 1995, the state had two GOP senators but all five members of its House delegation were Democrats. Some of the Democrats, such as Jamie Whitten and Sonny Montgomery, were longtime politicians who were widely expected to be succeeded by Republicans when they retired. The state attained the most national prominence it had since John Sharp Williams led the House Democratic Party in the early 20th century when Trent Lott served as Minority Whip in the House in the 1980s and then as Senate Majority Leader from 1996 to 2001 and Minority Leader from 2001-2002. The state didn’t have a majority GOP delegation until 1997, when Montgomery left office. However, even as late as 2010, the House delegation stood at 3-1 Democrat. The midterms that year changed this state of affairs and Mississippi has been at 3-1 Republican since, with the sole Democrat representing being Bennie Thompson, who represents a Voting Rights Act district. On the state level, it wasn’t until 1991 that the state elected its first Republican governor in Kirk Fordice and the state has been governed by a Republican for all but four years since. Until the 1992 election the GOP in the State Assembly never exceeded the single digits and it wasn’t until 2007 that the party won a majority in the State Senate. The State Assembly would not become majority GOP until the 2011 election.

Mississippi seems to be a very Republican state now, but there may still be room for Democrats to have an impact. The 2019 gubernatorial election is looking highly competitive, so possibly the voters of this state will act as the voters in the Northeast do: elect governors as state managers who can keep the ruling party in check as opposed to national ideologues.

Georgia

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Newt Gingrich, who was fundamental in building up the GOP on a state and national scale, as Speaker of the House.

Georgia is one of two Southern states that never voted Republican during Reconstruction, and its voters maintained some of the strongest Democratic loyalties. Sherman’s March to the Sea had had its impact. Until the 1960s, the last time Republicans were elected to Congress from the state was in 1872. The state was staunchly loyal to FDR, as after all he had Warm Springs, Georgia as his second home. However, not everyone in the state was a fan of FDR’s domestic policies. The state’s governor, Eugene Talmadge, was known as a foe of the New Deal and Democratic federal officeholders were becoming more conservative. Senator Walter George became more antagonistic to FDR on domestic policy after he tried to primary him out of office. Even though Georgia voters loved the president, they didn’t think it proper for him to interfere in their primaries. Other people who were often difficult for FDR to deal with on domestic policy were Congressmen Hugh Peterson, Malcolm Tarver, John Gibson, and especially Eugene Cox. Cox was a good friend of Minority Leader Joseph W. Martin (R-Mass.) and as a member of the Rules Committee played a significant part in the Conservative Coalition, even launching an abortive investigation into the Roosevelt Administration’s FCC. Although like the rest of Deep South states, segregation was the law of the land, Strom Thurmond’s candidacy in 1948 didn’t have the impact here that it did on other Deep South states. Governor Melvin Thompson was a staunch Truman supporter and the victor of the gubernatorial primary, Herman Talmadge, was not keen on alienating state politicians who backed Truman. Thus, the national Democratic Party won the state with ease.

Although the Republican share of the vote grew in the 1950s, Georgia was slower than many others given its long Democratic affiliation. Also helping the state stay with Democrats was the influence of Conservative Coalition leader Senator Richard Russell. Why, after all, would the voters of Georgia, who had long associated the Republican Party negatively with multiracial Reconstruction governments and federal occupation, vote for the GOP when the Democrats were providing an outlet for conservatism? Yet, in 1960 Georgia was JFK’s second best performance and the politicians of the state got the message: those who previously had more conservative records such as Congressmen Phil Landrum and John Flynt voted to accommodate the Kennedy Administration’s agenda, which was mostly liberal. Landrum himself was the primary sponsor of his successor’s anti-poverty legislation, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Georgia voters were conflicted between their ancestral party loyalties and their growing conservatism.

In 1964, despite the state refusing to buck Truman in 1948, it voted for Goldwater and elected its first Republican to Congress since Reconstruction in Howard “Bo” Callaway. In 1966, he ran for governor and although he won a plurality of the state’s vote, by law a plurality was to be decided by the Georgia legislature, which had pledged to support the Democratic candidate. Democrat Lester Maddox, who had closed his restaurant rather than serve black customers, was thus elected. However, that year also produced two new Republican members of Congress, Ben Blackburn and Fletcher Thompson. Although there was some growth of the GOP and of conservatism in the state, Democrats still were the power and the 1974 election resulted in the state returned to being entirely Democratic in its delegation. Even people who were as hardline conservative as you could be identified as Democrat, as was evident with Congressman Larry McDonald, who despite being the most conservative member of Congress in his time didn’t switch to Republican. The trend of Democratic loyalty extended especially to Jimmy Carter, the state’s governor. In 1976, Carter carried every county in the state (Nixon had done the same in ’72) and had his best electoral performance save for D.C. In 1978, a particularly influential Republican was elected to Congress from this state in Newt Gingrich, who was fundamental in building up the state party. In 1980, the state overwhelmingly voted to reelect him, but Reagan won the other Deep South states and the state’s voters elected Mack Mattingly, the first Republican senator since Reconstruction. In the meantime, Gingrich’s influence grew as one of Reagan’s staunchest advocates and as an arch foe of the Democratic House leadership. In 1992, the Democrats won the state one last time in a presidential election, but by a plurality and the state’s Republican delegation grew.

For the GOP, 1994 would be a watershed year in the state and the nation, as the they won control of both houses of Congress and the majority of the state’s House delegation. Newt Gingrich was afterwards elected Speaker of the House, and under his leadership the Republicans worked to pass “Contract with America” legislation. The most significant outcome of this development was welfare reform. Democrats still were able to hold power for a long time: the first Republican governor the state elected was since Reconstruction was Sonny Perdue in 2002. That year the GOP also won their first majority in the State Senate since Reconstruction and in 2004 won their first majority in the State House ever. The Republicans have held the governorship and majorities in both state houses since. The state also hasn’t had a Democratic senator since the retirement of Zell Miller in 2005.

Despite the Republican Party currently being dominant in Georgia, Democrats have recently been looking at it as a state they could win in the future. Trump’s margin of victory was 5% in 2016, which was the worst margin of victory for the party in the state in twenty years. In 2018, Republican Brian Kemp only won the governor’s race by 1.4% of the vote and the Democrats won a suburban House seat that had been Republican since Newt Gingrich won it in 1978. Under the current president, the GOP may have to fight harder for Georgia in 2020 than they have in over twenty years as it is the most likely to break of any of the Deep South states.

 

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