Between a Rock and a Hard Place: South Carolin'a Republican Presidential Primary

By Graham, Cole Blease, Jr. | Southern Cultures, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: South Carolin'a Republican Presidential Primary


Graham, Cole Blease, Jr., Southern Cultures


The "rock" in this case is the Granite State of New Hampshire; the "hard place" is the South, where Republican candidates for any office have had a hard row to hoe over the last century. How could a Republican even get on a ballot after "Mr. Lincoln's Party" interfered with the region's effort to form its own nation?

Between 1920 and 1950 in South Carolina, not one Republican candidate for governor, the U.S. Senate, or the U.S. House of Representatives received more than 5 percent of the popular vote. Republican presidential candidates fared about as poorly. In the 1940s, J. Bates Gerald, chair of South Carolina Republicans, gave the party's meager funds to GOP candidates in other states.

Over time, however, Republican fortunes have begun to change in South Carolina and in the South as a whole. In 1988, South Carolina Republicans scheduled for the first time a March presidential primary as a way for nominees to test their potential success across the region. The primary has become for Republicans in the South what the New Hampshire primary has long been for both parties in the nation.

THE DEMOCRATS LOSE THEIR GRIP

It is still a relatively new thing for a white southerner to be a Republican. From Reconstruction to the 1960s, many southerners and most South Carolinians wallowed in the "raw deal" of subsistence cotton agriculture or marginal employment in cotton-related manufacturing. A social and intellectual vacuum guaranteed South Carolina's isolation. Memories of John Calhoun's fears of national political power and outside influences coupled with white apprehension of African American political power created a politics of suspicion that resisted political change.

White southern ties with national Democrats began to loosen in the 1930s and 1940s in reaction to the New Deal. For one thing, federal purchase of eroded cropland seemed to destroy a way of life. New jobs were created by highway construction or defense spending and were protected by wage and hour laws; but for some people, programs like rural electrification, public housing, or more education smacked too much of "northern meddling" or European socialism. Such ideas left little doubt in the minds of many southern leaders that FDR Democrats were being overtaken by big labor, big government, and, perhaps most ominously, by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

V. O. Key Jr., the foremost student of southern politics at mid-twentieth century, noted that the poor condition of South Carolina's economy was overshadowed by its preoccupation with race. In the aftermath of Reconstruction and economic collapse, South Carolina Democrats emerged to keep the state in the clutches of a one-party system that emphasized states' rights and racial segregation, albeit with a faint undercurrent of agrarian liberalism.

Democratic political leaders came from an agrarian middle class of farm owners and professionals--the lawyer, the doctor, the teacher, the preacher. With few exceptions, they advocated or tolerated the status quo in a political culture that restricted the vote or political influence of cash wage earners, farm tenants, laborers, and household workers. They may have been Republicans under the skin, but they could not join a party identified with the destruction of the South.

The nominating primary was the mechanism for Democratic political dominance. Since Republicans seldom had a candidate in the general election, a primary victory resulted in election. In southern states, it was customary for African Americans not to participate in the primary, thus losing any meaningful role in the election.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declared the white primary unconstitutional in 1944, South Carolina repealed its primary laws and redefined the state Democratic Party as a private organization that could nominate political candidates. This maneuver also failed, and in July 1948, the South Carolina Democratic Party began enrolling African Americans. …

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