How the Republican Hold on the South Could Collapse
By Pema Levy / July 8, 2014 11:41 AM EDT
As minorities head to the South, the Republican grip on politics is under threat. Pictured, Obama supporters celebrate his election in 2008. Mario Tama/Getty
Filed Under: U.S., The South, Democrats, Republicans
Henry L. Marsh III wanted to see President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in person because, at 79, he figured he might not live to see another black president elected. So the Virginia civil rights lawyer spent January 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C., witnessing a part of history he had dedicated his life to making possible.
His presence at Obama’s inauguration, however, set off one of the dirtiest political maneuvers in recent history.
Marsh is a Democrat in the Virginia Senate, a chamber that until last month was divided evenly along party lines, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. But with Marsh 100 miles away in Washington, Republicans briefly enjoyed a 20-19 majority, if only for a few hours. In a power grab so brazen it caught even the GOP governor by surprise, Senate Republicans passed a bill redrawing the state Senate map to give them a permanent majority.
By the time Marsh returned, his colleagues had passed a redistricting bill that would have vastly undercut the political power of black Virginians. The new map crowded black voters into minority-heavy districts so that up to eight more districts would turn red, a strategy political scientists call “pack and crack,” leaving Republicans with a 27-13 majority in Virginia for years to come. As if to pour salt on the wound, this all happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The plan never made it out of the Republican-controlled legislature. Two and a half weeks after the Senate passed the new map, the Republican speaker in Virginia’s lower chamber, after much reflection and prayer, angered his own party by killing the map with a procedural move.
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“Count that as a new low for hyper-partisanship, dirty tricks and the unaccountable arrogance of power,” declared The Washington Post, echoing the widespread shock at the sly incident that made a mockery of democracy.
That attempt may seem extraordinary up close, but take a step back to look at the changing demographics of Virginia and the South more broadly and this power play starts to make sense. Two months before, Obama had won the state for a second time. For the first time since 1964, Virginia was on its way from red to blue.
Virginia’s Republicans were seeing decades of political control melting away before their eyes. “They tried to seize power that they didn’t deserve,” Marsh said. “They got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.”
To understand why the Republican Party has come to dominate the South—and why that strength may now be waning—you have to go back to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln and Northern abolitionists ran the Republican Party in the 1860s, while the Democrats drew much of their strength from the slave states. After Reconstruction, when the Southern states were left to their own devices, the Democratic Party ruled with an iron fist—and Jim Crow. Their reign lasted nearly a century.
The GOP in Dixie, political scientist V.O. Key Jr. observed in 1949, more closely resembled a cult or a conspiracy than a political party. In 1950, of the 127 members of Congress from the former Confederate states, just two were Republican.
But the Democrats’ stranglehold on the South was already loosening. Perhaps no one embodied, or facilitated, the South’s transformation from the Democrats’ Solid South to the regional anchor of today’s Republican Party as much as Strom Thurmond.
After Democratic President Harry Truman embraced civil rights ahead of his re-election bid in 1948, Southern Democrats broke from the party in protest. They wanted to send a message to Democrats in Washington: Either civil rights go, or the South goes.
A group of Southern lawmakers formed the “Dixiecrats,” who were devoted to states’ rights, and nominated Thurmond, the former Democratic segregationist governor of South Carolina, for president. On a hot day in Birmingham, Alabama, Thurmond made his first speech to Southern deserters as their presumptive nominee.
“There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches,” Thurmond told them. That November, he won over a million votes and carried four states in the Deep South.
Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats weren’t kidding around. Two months after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, Thurmond, by then a U.S. senator, switched parties from Democrat to Republican. That November, five Southern states followed his lead and voted for Barry Goldwater, the Republicans’ ultra-conservative presidential nominee. In 1964, more Southern whites voted Republican than Democrat for the first time. They never went back.