The major growth of the state’s Republican Party occurred in the 1980s and 1990s as conservative whites switched to the Republicans. In 1986 Republican Carroll Campbell was elected governor in a close contest, but he was reelected in a landslide in 1990.
The origins of the Republican Party in South Carolina date back to the Reconstruction era. During Reconstruction, the only citizens allowed to register to vote were black and white males twenty-one years of age or older who had not aided the Confederacy. These voters participated in choosing delegates to a convention that drew up a new state constitution of 1868. Under this constitution a new Republican Party–dominated government, from governor to town councils, emerged. Robert K. Scott, a white Republican from Ohio, was elected governor in 1868 and reelected in 1870. Two more white Republicans, Franklin J. Moses, Jr., and Daniel H. Chamberlain, were elected governor in 1872 and 1874 respectively.
Black South Carolinians dominated the Republican Party in this era. In the General Assembly election of 1868, 109 of 124 House members (75 black, 34 white) and 25 of 32 Senate members (10 black, 15 white) were Republican. Black Republicans were also elected to Congress and to several statewide offices, including lieutenant governor, adjutant general, secretary of state, and state treas- urer. Overall, between 1867 and 1876 blacks won 255 of the 487 elections for state or federal offices in South Carolina.
By 1875 white South Carolinians began to react to black Republican domination, and a policy of voting only for Democrats began to evolve. The disputed election of 1876 eventually resulted in Democrat Wade Hampton III becoming governor. By 1877, because of new elections, resignations, and expulsions, the Democratic Party gained control of the General Assembly. After 1878 the Republican Party did not even nominate a candidate for governor. While some Republicans continued to be elected to office during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, the party generally ceased to be a viable political entity in South Carolina, especially after African Americans were disfranchised in 1895. For example, between 1920 and 1950 no Republican candidate for governor or the U.S. Senate received as much as five percent of the popular vote.
The resurrection of the Republican Party in South Carolina during the second half of the twentieth century was a top-down phenomenon. The first major victory for the Republican Party occurred in 1964. In 1961 Republican U.S. senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, referring to conservative white southerners, stated, “we’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968 so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” Conservative white South Carolinians supported Goldwater for president in 1964 and his states’ rights message, and he carried the state, receiving 58.9 percent of the popular vote. From 1964 to the end of the twentieth century, South Carolina voted Republican in every presidential election except 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the state.
The Goldwater campaign provided an impetus for Republican Party development in the state. In 1964 U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond switched to the Republican Party. One year later Congressman Albert Watson resigned from Congress and switched to the Republican Party after the House Democratic caucus stripped him of his congressional seniority because of his support of Goldwater in 1964. Watson became the first Republican congressman from South Carolina in the twentieth century when he was reelected in a special election in June 1965. Republicans also began to successfully contest state legislature races in the 1960s. Their support, however, was limited primarily to a few urban districts. By 1970 Republicans held just five seats in the state House and three in the Senate.
While much of the support for the Republican Party in the 1960s was linked to racial politics, the party was beginning to attract supporters from the rapidly growing urban middle class in the state, which supported the conservative economic philosophy of the Republicans. The party also benefited by the influx of business executives and retirees into South Carolina. In 1974 James Edwards became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. While Edwards’s victory was a result of a Democratic Party split, it was a symbolic triumph.
The major growth of the state’s Republican Party occurred in the 1980s and 1990s as conservative whites switched to the Republicans. In 1986 Republican Carroll Campbell was elected governor in a close contest, but he was reelected in a landslide in 1990. Republican David Beasley succeeded him in 1994. Beasley was a former Democrat who had switched to the Republican Party in 1991. In the same election the Republican Party also won seven of the state’s nine constitutional offices. The Republican Party also became increasingly successful in winning state legislative seats. In the General Assembly, Republican membership in the House increased from 17 in 1981 to 42 in 1991, and in 1995 the Republican Party held a majority of the House seats for the first time since Reconstruction. The Republican Party experienced a similar growth in the state Senate. In 1981 there were only 5 Republican state senators. This figure increased to 12 by 1991. Following the 2000 elections, the Republican Party held a majority in both the House and the Senate, making South Carolina the only Deep South state to have both legislative houses controlled by Republicans. In 2002 the Republican Party held 69 of the 124 House seats and 25 of the 46 Senate positions.
A 1990 Mason-Dixon poll illustrated the growth of the Republican Party in South Carolina. In that poll fifty-one percent of the state’s white voters considered themselves Republicans while only twenty-seven percent considered themselves Democrats. In contrast, seventy-eight percent of African Americans considered themselves Democrats. Thus, since Reconstruction the Republican Party in South Carolina has changed from being a liberal party dominated by African Americans to a conservative party dominated by whites. At the beginning of the twenty-first century South Carolina had become the most Republican of the Deep South states.
Bass, Jack, and Walter DeVries. The Transformation of Southern Politics: Social Change and Political Consequence since 1945. 1976. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
Moore, William V. “Parties and Elections in South Carolina.” In South Carolina Government: An Introduction, edited by Charlie B. Tyer. Columbia: Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina, 2002.