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 be 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 in 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 Democratic 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 in the GOP column since for presidential elections, 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 returning 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 Carter, 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 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 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.

4 thoughts on “How The South Became Republican Part V: Mississippi and Georgia

  1. Excellent article and analysis! I should note regarding the rise of the GOP in the South that, contrary to naive narratives promoted by leftists/academia including the likes of Princeton liberal hack Kevin M. Kruse, not all of the Southern Republicans in the newer wave during the 1950s and 1960s were as equally awful on racial issues as the Southern Democrats. I see you briefly mentioned Fletcher Thompson, who succeeded Charles Weltner and voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

    Wirt Yerger also seems like an interesting political figure. He contrasted from some Mississippi Republicans like Prentiss Walker who were staunch segregationists (and essentially closet Democrats), having opposed white supremacy and got Perry Wilborn Howard, a black Republican, to participate in the 1952 GOP convention. According to a friend of mine who’s a top-notch historian and expert on Southern U.S. politics and wrote “Challenging the Status Quo: Rubel Lex Phillips and the Mississippi Republican Party (1963-1967),” Howard backed Robert A. Taft for the party nomination over Eisenhower. I believe the more conservative Taft was actually more pro-civil rights than Eisenhower.

    IMO, Yerger seems comparable to Florida representative William C. Cramer. Both appeared to build Southern GOPs based on a grassroots coalition among whites who were more racially moderate and did not appeal to racism in the manner of most Southern Democrats. Yerger in particular appealed to business interests and his rise seemed to benefit from urbanization.

  2. Thanks! Yeah, what often gets lost in the liberal Democratic partisanship of many of these historians is that the Southern Republican rise was largely fueled by the postwar growth of the suburbs, which had many Northern transplants who lacked interest in upholding Jim Crow. The 1964 election is thus quite an outlier in the general trend. Indeed, it is not well known but true that in 1980 Reagan lost the popular vote in the Deep South. Although the black vote certainly put Carter over the top, there were still plenty of white Southern Democrats who were sticking with him. Many of these went to Reagan in 1984 as he was popular, the economy was recovering, and Mondale was both more liberal and not Southern. I’d agree that Taft was more interested in civil rights than Ike, but to be fair to the latter, his greatest contributions lay not in the weak 1957 and 1960 laws he signed but in the anti-segregation federal judges he picked for federal circuit courts in the South.

    Definitely in most cases to say that Southern Republicans were just as bad as the segregationist Democrats doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Researching the debate over the Republican substitute for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it became clear to me that quite a few Southern Republicans were willing to vote for that version had it made final passage, while many Southern Democrats indicated their preference for it but that they would have voted it down on final passage anyway as they wanted no legislation at all. Also, only one Republican, unabashed segregationist Albert Watson of South Carolina, voted against the Jury Selection and Service Act in 1968, which enacted penalties for racial discrimination in federal jury selection. Many other Southern Democrats opposed this law.

    1. Reagan lost the Deep South popular vote in 1980? Hmm, interesting. As for Ike on civil rights, he definitely had a good record overall as president, though I remember reading something about him previously being less opposed to segregation (something along those lines). This, along with a few other instances throughout history of progressive/liberal Republicans being less pro-civil rights than their conservative counterparts, from William Borah’s opposition towards anti-lynching legislation to Robert M. LaFollette, Jr. voting in favor of killing the two Senate anti-lynching rider amendments of 1937, really stand out to me because it further shows how naive and flawed the whole “racist = conservative, pro-civil rights = liberal” narrative is.

      Also, can you see if you can find the GovTrack roll call votes for the Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968? Thanks!

      And pardon what evidently was a mistake on my part in my original post here. It appears that Wirt Yerger’s faction of the Mississippi GOP was different from that of Perry W. Howard.

  3. Yeah, Reagan narrowly won in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, won by 6 points in Louisiana, and lost by about 15 points in Georgia. Home state enthusiasm was enough to put Carter over the top in the Deep South despite him being…well…Jimmy Carter.

    The narrative doesn’t stand up at all before the end of World War II and mostly only improves after because the Southern Democrats grow much more conservative with FDR’s third term and Truman’s presidency doing the trick. The conservative Republican opponents of measures that didn’t involve federal government involvement in the private sector were either Southern or ultra-conservative outliers on domestic policy in the House who saw most postwar proposals as extensions of the New Deal to race relations like Clare Hoffman of Michigan (who despised nearly everything FDR did) and Noah Mason of Illinois, and even they didn’t have 100% opposition records. The sheer number of conservative Republicans in the North who voted for civil rights legislation ought to give such narrative spreaders pause unless that’s what they are paid to do of course. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, funny enough from socialist Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    Senator Borah was a stunning abnormality among the Republicans, not only given his opposition to anti-lynching legislation but also that given that he was the only one of them to vote for Southern proposals to the 19th Amendment to limit the extension of suffrage to white women. He had some other votes that look downright bizarre to modern observers based on his states’ rights heavy conception of federalism including against the Child Labor Amendment in 1924 and the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, both of which got a surprisingly high level of support from Republicans far more conservative than him. For La Follette Jr., I found his votes against adding anti-lynching riders to the Interstate Commerce Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act as about preventing a unified Southern bloc against them rather than opposition to such legislation in principle as he seemed to otherwise support civil rights proposals, but yeah…the issue got used a bit as a political football.

    For the Jury Selection and Service Act, here you go:

    https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/90-1968/h261

    And if you’re curious about the “white women only” proposal, this was the last-ditch one proposed by Pat Harrison of Mississippi:

    https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/66-1/s10

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