It is difficult to exaggerate the dominance of the Democratic Party in South Carolina during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. In every presidential election except that of 1948, the Democratic candidate received the state’s electoral votes.
Thomas Jefferson’s ideological split with Alexander Hamilton found an appreciative audience in post–Revolutionary War South Carolina and provided the beginnings of the Democratic Party in the state. Charles Pinckney emerged as an early leader, sharing Jefferson’s belief in strict construction of the Constitution. Pinckney’s opposition to the Jay Treaty also found resonance among South Carolinians who wished to be reimbursed for slaves lost to Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. When Federalists nominated Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as their vice-presidential candidate in 1800, Charles Pinckney continued to support the Jeffersonians even though it meant a break with his family. Pinckney, however, picked the winning side: Jefferson won the presidency, and Democratic-Republican John Drayton became governor of South Carolina. Democratic-Republicans and their successors, the Democrats, would hold the governorship continuously until 1865.
After Pinckney brought South Carolina into the Democratic fold, South Carolinians continued to play an important role in the national Democratic Party throughout the antebellum years. Native sons Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun took prominent, if occasionally conflicting, roles. The main leader of the party in the state was Calhoun, who was generally able to quell opposition both within the party and from the Whig Party. During this period the party had strongholds not only among wealthy lowcountry planters but also among independent upcountry farmers. Both groups found the party’s promise of protection from outside encroachment–and thus the protection of slavery–to be an appealing one.
The national Democratic Party was unable to stay united long enough to prevent civil war, and the party’s hold on South Carolina was briefly broken at the war’s end. But the election of Wade Hampton III in 1876 once again gave the party a stranglehold on the office of governor for nearly a century. Meaningful political debate could largely take place only within the Democratic Party in the years following Reconstruction. The Republican Party was anathema to white South Carolinians, having been the party of Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction. Although there were vast differences of ideology, style, and sophistication among state Democrats, one overriding, enduring value and purpose held it together: maintaining a segregated party and society and “keeping the Negro population in their place,” as well as an intense aversion to the Republican Party.
Conflicts within the Democratic Party included elites versus populists, lowcountry versus upstate, mill workers versus mill owners, and conflicts of personality among political leaders. Without question, the dominant, controlling influence in South Carolina politics (and therefore the Democratic Party) was the established, elite, conservative economic and social order. In those few instances in which a true populist emerged and achieved political success, he was soon co-opted or defeated by the established order. There were some nods to democracy, however: the South Carolina Democratic Party was one of the first parties to use the primary as a method of nominating its candidates. The primary was first used in Pickens County in 1876. While ostensibly democratic, the primary became an effective tool for excluding African American participation in politics.
It is difficult to exaggerate the dominance of the Democratic Party in South Carolina during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. In every presidential election except that of 1948, the Democratic candidate received the state’s electoral votes. All of its U.S. senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives were Democrats, save one. Virtually every member of the General Assembly and every local elected official was a Democrat–a white Democrat. African Americans were legally excluded from participation in the state’s only meaningful election, the Democratic primary. This exclusion was successfully challenged in federal court, first in Texas and then in 1947 in the South Carolina case Elmore v. Rice. While this decision ended the legal prohibition to African American participation, it did not effectively open the primaries to blacks.
Changes precipitated by World War II affected South Carolina politics radically and irrevocably. When President Harry Truman integrated the armed forces and recommended a comprehensive civil rights program, many white South Carolinians were shocked, even horrified, by these threats to their state’s system of racial segregation. As a result, South Carolina gave its electoral votes to Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats in 1948. With the emergence of an increasingly successful civil rights movement, white South Carolinians believed that the national Democratic Party was becoming hostile to their racial mores. White South Carolinians found other problems with national Democrats who seemed to be more sympathetic to anti–Vietnam War activism and more tolerant of changing gender roles. These changes, combined with a lack of effective organization among state and local Democratic organizations, contributed to the disintegration of the Democratic Party in South Carolina.
Republicans in South Carolina seized on the advocacy of civil right programs by national Democrats and painted a clearly different image of themselves. They also appealed to the state’s growing middle class. Republicans tended to be better organized and had a clearer issue orientation than Democrats did. Republicans were consistent in their conservatism on economic matters and their opposition to civil rights initiatives. Democrats responded to these shifting, uncertain circumstances by trying to separate themselves from the positions of their national Democratic cohorts. But they had to do this with great caution and care because African Americans in South Carolina became an increasingly significant portion of the Democratic base. Too much disagreement with the national Democratic Party would alienate black South Carolinians.
In a special election in 1961 a Republican, Charles Boineau, was elected to the South Carolina General Assembly. Even though he was defeated at the next regular election, Boineau’s election foreshadowed a major political shift in the state. In 1964, the year in which U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, South Carolina gave its electoral votes to the Republican presidential nominee for the first time in the twentieth century. As of the early twenty-first century, only one time since then has the state voted for the Democratic candidate for president, for Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 1964 Congressman Albert Watson from the Second Congressional District backed Barry Goldwater for president, switched parties, resigned, ran in a special election, and won. Of the state’s six congressional districts, only two (the Fifth and the Sixth) remained in Democratic hands during the last two decades of the twentieth century.
The shift was also felt at the state level. Republicans claimed the governorship in 1974, when James B. Edwards won the general election. Although Democrat Dick Riley recaptured the governor’s mansion in 1978, Republicans occupied it for twelve years after Carroll Campbell was first elected in 1986. During these twelve years, Republicans built their party, while Democrats wandered in a proverbial wilderness with little leadership, little money, and hardly any organization. Losses were suffered at all levels. In every election from 1970 to 1994 Democrats suffered a net loss of seats in the General Assembly. These legislative setbacks were matched by comparable defeats at the local level.
Two court-imposed changes affected Democratic elective prospects in South Carolina. First, the doctrine of “one-man, one-vote” caused a substantial shift of legislative power from rural areas to urban areas. Because the urban areas were centers of Republican strength, this shift abetted Republican growth. The second change, single-member districts, was adopted because multimember districts resulted in disproportionately small percentages of African Americans being elected to office. Creating majority black legislative districts had four political effects: more Republicans were elected; more black Democrats were elected; fewer white Democrats were elected; and the total number of Democrats elected declined.
These legal changes reinforced the effects of the social, cultural, and economic changes that occurred in South Carolina since 1947. In that year South Carolina was a solidly Democratic state from top to bottom. By 2000 it had become a majority Republican state, although the margin enjoyed by the Republicans was not nearly so great as was the Democratic advantage in 1947.
Democrats began to show signs of recovery in 1996. While Republican Bob Dole took South Carolina’s electoral votes, William Clinton’s presidential campaign provided enough cohesion to enable South Carolina Democrats to fight the Republicans to a draw in other races. Building on this base, and taking advantage of Republican miscues, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Hodges won a surprisingly convincing race in 1998. Democrats reelected Senator Ernest F. Hollings and gained five seats in the General Assembly. But in 2002 Hodges lost his race for reelection and Democrats suffered losses in the General Assembly and at the local level; in 2004 Hollings was replaced by Republican James DeMint.
The legacy of the civil rights movement was still evident in voting patterns at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The South Carolina Democratic Party had a single dependable base: the African American community, which constituted approximately twenty-five percent of the total vote in statewide races. Only about twenty-five percent of whites regularly voted for Democrats in statewide races, and most of this vote was scattered throughout the state. Thus, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed a transformation of South Carolina from the reliably Democratic state it had been since the time of Charles Pinckney to an increasingly consistent Republican state.
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