The Reform Party ran on the same platform as the regular Republicans, and for their nominees for governor and lieutenant governor the Reformers chose the runners-up for those offices from the regular Republican convention.
During the Reconstruction era, South Carolina’s voting population was about sixty percent African American, the vast majority of whom normally voted for the Republican Party. Democrats could not carry a statewide election unless, by persuasion or by force, they convinced numerous black voters to side with them. As a result, the statewide elections of 1870, 1872, and 1874 saw Democrats attempt to cooperate with disaffected Republicans to defeat the regular Republican Party. The Conservative Party of 1870 was widely viewed as a disguised Democratic party, and few Republicans voted for it. The Liberal Republicans of 1872 were perceived as truly Republican and received few Democrats’ votes. In 1874, however, the coalition, this time called the “Reform Party,” attracted a high turnout among Democrats and substantial defections from the Republicans; the result was the closest election of the three. The Republicans won, however, their candidate for governor prevailing by a margin of 80,403 votes to 68,818.
The Reform Party ran on the same platform as the regular Republicans, and for their nominees for governor and lieutenant governor the Reformers chose the runners-up for those offices from the regular Republican convention. John T. Green, the Reform nominee for governor, was a white native of Sumter County who had served as a circuit judge and was considered a man of integrity and honesty. The Reformers strove to make these traits the issue of the campaign. Financial scandals in nearly every branch of government had made South Carolina nationally famous for graft, and Democrats argued that the Republican Party could not be trusted to remedy the situation. The Republican candidate, Daniel H. Chamberlain, was a Harvard graduate and a Massachusetts native who had served as attorney general two years previously. He was not untouched by scandal, but he also promised that if elected he would undertake “reform,” by which he meant both greater honesty in government and financial retrenchment.
The campaign was dominated by two sets of accusations: the Reformers accused the Republicans of being dishonest, and the Republicans accused the Reformers of being Democrats. In bolstering their claim, the Reformers noted that two years earlier the Republicans had promised reform but failed to rein in corruption and overspending. Meanwhile, Republicans accused Democrats of following a “possum policy” of pretending to be indifferent to the Reform movement while secretly bankrolling it; one Republican leader called the Reform Party “a white league ku klux possum.” Indeed, white conservatives resorted to economic pressure and even violence in an attempt to carry the election for the Reform Party.
In the balloting, however, enough Republicans held firm that the party continued in power. But the fusion strategy was not a total failure for Democrats. Democrats and Reform Republicans together won 53 of 124 seats in the state House of Representatives and 15 of 33 seats in the state Senate–both numbers represent the best showing for the Democrats since the advent of black suffrage. These results were achieved largely through cooperation with Reform
Republicans at the local level, and they illustrate that the potential existed for Democrats to retake the state through (mostly) peaceful means. Whether that potential would have become reality will never be known, as Democrats in 1876 abandoned fusion politics and regained control of the state by force.
Rubin, Hyman S., III. “The South Carolina Scalawags.” Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 2001.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.