One of the more interesting postscripts of the 2010 elections in South Carolina was the fact that the Republican Party swept all nine of the state constitutional offices for the first time. Add to that the fact that the GOP extended its already large majority in the state House of Representatives, and one might think that Democrats were an endangered species and that Republican rule was a time-honored tradition in our state.
In fact, the Republican domination of state politics only came into being after careful planning and strategizing by party leaders after a long period of Democratic rule. If the present-day Democratic Party in South Carolina does not want to be relegated to permanent minority-party status, it should immediately begin planning on how it can once again become relevant. Such planning begins with building thoughtful coalitions within the South Carolina electorate based on common interests and a careful examination of how its once-impenetrable majority was lost in the first place.
Prior to the Civil Rights Era, the South was solidly Democratic. This reality dated back to the end of the Civil War, when a Republican Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts. The Reconstruction Acts required Southern states to draw up new constitutions giving blacks the right to vote. Historian Jack Bass notes that by 1867, 90 percent of eligible blacks had already registered to vote. Considering that in 1870 South Carolina’s population was 59 percent black, this had an immediate and dramatic impact on who was elected statewide. In the decade after the acts, South Carolina sent eight black Republicans to Congress, more blacks than any other Southern state. By 1868, 76 out of the 124 members elected to South Carolina’s Constitutional Convention were black.
This all changed with the Compromise of 1877, which effectively ended Reconstruction. Blacks were disenfranchised through devices such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses. The South would vote as a Democratic block for more than a generation, and South Carolina would become a one-party state. And that party was the Democratic Party.
Southerners began to defect en masse from the Democratic Party after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After signing the act, Johnson reportedly said, “We may have just lost the South for a generation.” He was right. No presidential candidate would carry the South until Jimmy Carter in 1980. Democrats picked up African Americans as a significant voting bloc after 1964, while the Republican Party became the party of states’ rights and resistance to federally mandated integration. Republican party affiliation in the South predictably grew, with Gov. Carroll Campbell and Sen. Strom Thurmond playing major roles in the party’s growth here in South Carolina.
Despite these inroads, Democrats in the S.C. House of Representatives maintained a continuous and unbroken majority from 1876 until 1994. This majority ended when Republicans and the Legislative Black Caucus agreed on a redistricting plan that increased the number of “minority-majority” districts. These are districts where a majority of the voters are black. Republican strategists correctly assumed that while such a redistricting plan would increase the number of black representatives elected to the state legislature, it would also greatly reduce black Democratic Party votes in several other districts. They were right. In 1994, the number of blacks in the South Carolina Legislature increased from 18 to 24, but there were nine fewer white Democrats. Democrats have been in the minority ever since.
The Democratic Party can only regain relevance by recreating the coalition it had following the Civil Rights Era and prior to 1994. This requires a focus on economic and educational issues that appeal to South Carolinians of all races. Until Democrats can formulate a meaningful elective strategy based on this focus, South Carolina will remain a polarized state where only one party calls the shots.