Changing Political Landscape of the New South

(Hilton Head, S.C.) Apparently unimpressed by the rumpled charm of GOP candidate Wendell Wilkie and untroubled that FDR was challenging the two term tradition set by George Washington, South Carolinians in 1940 gave Roosevelt a thunderous 96 % of their votes—still a modern record for the most one–sided verdict given by any state in a Presidential election.

Since then things have improved dramatically for Republicans here in the Palmetto State and ironically the original architect of today’s GOP dominance was the same man who managed FDR’s 1940 South Carolina campaign—Democratic Governor J. Strom Thurmond.

In 1964 declaring that “at last, the South can cast a vote for a real conservative”, then Senator Thurmond changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican and announced his support for GOP Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. The majority of South Carolina’s heretofore rock ribbed Democratic voters affirmed the judgment of their hero and not only backed Goldwater, but returned Thurmond as their Republican Senator for six additional terms, maintaining their loyalty until he finally retired in 2002 at the ripe old age of one hundred.

Though the GOP has carried South Carolina in eleven of the last twelve Presidential elections, at the state and local level the Democratic Party did not surrender its historic dominance easily or quickly. In a pattern replicated all across the South the GOP had to invest long years and much hard work to build the party at the grass roots to a point of being seriously competitive in school board, county commissioner, and state legislative races.

Among those who successfully undertook those arduous labors in South Carolina was a brilliant young political operative name Lee Atwater who at the age of thirty–six became the national campaign manager for George H. W. Bush and designer of the classic strategy that demolished Michael Dukakis. Along the way he served as mentor to a little known contemporary from Texas named Karl Rove.

A good place for an up close glimpse of the new Southern GOP was the recent Beaufort County Republican Party’s annual convention here in Hilton Head.

Optimism was palpable among the smiling throngs of delegates. A signal cause of their enthusiasm was the U. S. Census Bureau’s announcement that South Carolina would be gaining a seventh Congressional seat—yet another Sunbelt Red State gaining added national clout at the expense of Northern Blues. Also, owing to the stunning GOP gains at every level last November Republicans here will totally control the redistricting process now underway.

This observer was struck by the relative youth and substantial diversity of the attendees. This is not your father’s Republican Party.

A greeting from Governor Nikki Haley is loudly cheered. Haley who is the state’s first female governor also joins Bobby Jindal as the nation’s second state chief of Indian heritage.

Among the prominently displayed pictures of national GOP figures are the newly elected Hispanic governors of Nevada and New Mexico. A passing Latina sports a Big Name Button picturing Florida Senator Marco Rubio adorned with the legend “An American Leader”.

Capping this theme of diversity was the Keynote Speaker, Freshman Congressman Tim Scott from Charleston who became the first black Republican from the Deep South elected to Congress since Reconstruction. Capturing nearly two thirds of the popular vote in November Scott persuaded thousands of black Democrats to cast a first ever vote for the GOP. Already a rising star in Washington Scott was elected President of the GOP’s 87 member Freshman Class.

Scott’s speech—repeatedly interrupted by applause is worth quoting at some length:

“If we are going to remain the most amazing country on God’s green earth we have to get serious about out finances. Americans across the country sent a very simple message—Cut Spending, cut spending wherever you can, cut spending as often as you can, but cut spending … We must destroy, de–fund, and dismantle Obama Care … If you come from the halls of community activism, you may believe, as our President does, that money grows on trees, and there’s such a thing as ‘federal money’. No such thing as ‘federal money’. That’s your money, that’s my money, and we want it back.”

We are seeing portents of a New South, a New Republican Party, and a new and hopefully better America.


William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Washington Times and other publications. He lives in Colorado where he is a Fellow of the Centennial Institute.

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