Southern Republicans for a Change
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1980, pp. 10-13
As deeply conservative Republican candidates began to celebrate their victories to the local bands’ tunes of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and “Dixie” late evening November 4 and early morning November 5, almost all historical truisms of Southern politics were discarded in one place or another to the blurred disbelief of life-time Democratic officials who wondered out loud what had become of the God-given virtues of a Southerner being a member of the party of Jefferson and Jackson. Not since 1964, when Barry Goldwater raced to be president, had the Republicans been able to take over so many seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate reserved for Democrats since Reconstruction.
Ronald Reagan took ten of the South’s eleven Southern states, leaving in the Democratic column only the President’s home state where U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge was defeated by little-known Republican Mack Mattingly. In three other Southern states—North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama—Republicans were also elected to the U.S. Senate so that in January only two Southern states—Arkansas and Louisiana—will not have at least one Republican U.S. Senator.
Republican victories were also impressive in races for the U.S. House. The party picked up nine new seats in the South and, except in Georgia, won every contest where a Democratic incumbent had retired or was defeated in the primary election. In South Carolina’s first district, Republican Tom Harnett defeated Pug Ravenel, the Democratic candidate who won the gubernatorial race in 1974 only to be disqualified by the courts as a non-resident and who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1978.
Although not one incumbent Republican Representative in the South lost on November 4, five incumbent Democrats who faced Republican challengers including two in Virginia and two in North Carolina were defeated. Three of these Democratic incumbents were members of the South’s congressional delegation who were rated highly by traditional liberals, labor, civil rights and civil liberties groups. In January, almost one-third of the South’s delegation in the House will be Republican, and across the South only Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee Democrats can claim that their party survived all new Republican challenges in congressional and state-wide races.
Two years back, if not only a few months ago, most of the eager Republican candidates who sought to challenge Democratic incumbents in November were virtually unknown. While a few had run successfully for offices in previous years, even fewer had held any public office. A loyal party member, Frank White in Arkansas was the president of a savings and loan association in Little Rock who even the financial institution’s customers probably couldn’t have named six months ago. Insurance executive Albert Lee Smith of Birmingham had unsuccessfully campaigned for the U.S. House two years ago but only among Republican regulars. An outspoken professor and an ally of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, John P. East in North Carolina had been active in politics for years but, because he is confined to a wheelchair as a polio victim, the new senator had seldom been in the public view before this campaign.
The Democrats, on the other hand, had an impressive gallery of rising stars and well-established political bodies. The youngest governor in America, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, was handsome, articulate, and politically savvy. While worried earlier in the year about the intentions of Georgia Democratic Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, Senator Herman Talmadge was a public servant with 24 years of seniority and constituent services to prove his worth despite the U.S. Senate’s denunciation of his financial dealings. Rep. Bob Eckhart of Texas had served his district for seven terms and was renowned throughout the country.
Overcoming public obscurity, the Republican march to victory in federal elections resembled a traveling road show where minstrels performed political miracles defying all the time-tested rules of who can win and lose in Southern politics. Regional pride, love of seniority at any cost, religious tolerance for any faith so long as it was bedrock Protestant, and downright disgust for anything relating to “sexual perversion”—known in more pluralistic circles as homosexuality—had been human emotions which every Southern politician used to observe rigorously. In this election, the South rejected as president one of its own; Georgia tuned out the country’s third ranking U.S. Senator; Alabama elected its first Catholic to the U. S. Senate; the politically right Christians in Birmingham debunked a Baptist preacher; and Jackson, Mississippi voters re-
elected a congressman who had recently admitted to frequenting homosexual gatherings in Washington, D.C., where he had been arrested on criminal charges. Amazingly, this generous dose of political tolerance was bestowed by voters only on Republicans.
The redeeming virtue of these and other winning Republicans was apparently bedrock conservatism that endorses a balanced federal budget, increased military spending, and curtailed federal programs. These newcomers’ views are largely carbon copies of the speeches and newsletters of most of the Southern Republicans elected to Congress since 1964.
The images and style of N.C. Sen. Jesse Helms constitute the political figure that most successful Republicans resembled this election. Articulate and unhesitating, Helms has become one of the chief spokesmen for the Republican opposition to government spending, except for roads or defense, and almost any issue held precious by liberals, feminists, and racial minorities. While his record among every liberal and civil rights group is always one of the lowest, Helms has done more than simply act as a political mannequin for Republican candidates to imitate.
For his friend John East, Helms used the extensive mail fundraising apparatus of his Congressional Club, which raised more than $7 million for his own re-election last time, to generate campaign funds to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan. In Alabama, the new Republican Senator, Jeremiah Denton, tells the story of how Helms inspired the former prisoner of war to do more than simply organize a chapter of the Moral Majority—to get into politics and win.
The organized conservative campaign groups such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Voice also had their hand visibly in the triumph of some Republicans. Rep.-elect Albert Lee Smith of Birmingham was a member of the local chapter of the Moral Majority. In Houston, Bob Eckhart’s successful Republican opponent had strong support from conservative religious groups. In Florida, Paula Hawkins picked up the endorsement of several visible conservative Christian organizations. And in the last few weeks of the campaign, Jimmy Carter was attacked in radio ads broadcast largely in Southern rural areas as the friend of the gay community. There was, however, little of the extensive, expensive television campaigning against incumbents by these groups as undertaken in other parts of the country against dyed-in-the-wool liberals such as George McGovern and Birch Bayh.
The Southern Republican challengers’ own television spots, especially during the last couple of weeks of the campaign, may have had a critical effect in gaining three Senate seats. “The East campaign pumped in a helluva lot of money in TV spots a week before the election,” says Raymond Wheeler, former president of the Southern Regional Council and Charlotte, North Carolina physician. “They repeatedly showed (Senator Robert) Morgan as a Mafia-type figure who had given away the Panama Canal and Nicaragua to Communists and had weakened the country’s ability to defend itself.” Much of Mack Mattingly’s million or so dollars were spent in Georgia on television ads that hit hard at Senator Talmadge’s absenteeism on important roll call votes in a time of inflation and unemployment. And Jeremiah Denton in Alabama saturated metropolitan areas with ads that reminded voters of his heroics as a captive in North Viet Nam (recalling for some how he blinked the word “TORTURE” by Morse code as he was forced to read a conciliatory statement for North Viet Nam on behalf of the POWs) and his mature conservative positions.
In most of the hotly contested congressional races, Southerners could perceive very little philosophical difference between the parties’ candidates. In Charleston, Democratic nominee Ravenel and Republican Harnett both favored a strong defense and could argue only over who could get a seat on the Armed Services Committee to best carry out their pledge. Each candidate produced a letter from his party’s leadership in the U.S. House to prove that if elected he would have the appointment on the committee which the Charleston representative has held for more than 20 years. When House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts praised Ravenel in his letter, Harnett chided his opponent, who had spent several months in Washington as a Department of Commerce official, as a part of the big-spending Washington crowd.
A series of Senatorial debates in Alabama evidenced so little substantial disagreement that one local wag suggested that the events were really “political weddings.” Age was the one factor which Republican Denton tried to stress: “There are a lot of 31-year-olds smarter than me … but Jim Folsom isn’t one of them,” the Republican would say. Folsom, the tall, handsome son of former populist Gov. “Big Jim,” stressed most often one difference. He was a Democrat and his opponent was a Republican.
Most of the defeated incumbents in Congress were attacked for their
record of free spending and creating a weak defense. Texas Rep. Bob Eckhart of Houston stood by his record of opposing big business and assisting consumers although successful Republican challenger Jack Fields, supported by oil money, succeeded in picturing Eckhart as too-liberal-and-too-out-of-touch. Much of the same drama of issues and allegations was played out in Birmingham, where Smith defeated incumbent Republican John Buchanan in that party’s primary, and in Virginia where Republican challengers defeated Democratic Reps. Herbert Harris and Joseph Fisher in the suburban areas outside of Washington.
The Republican gains mark unmistakably a two-party system in the South’s congressional offices. With almost half the Senate delegation and a third of the congressional delegation from the South, Republicans have made good on the 1964 efforts to establish another viable political party. Nashville Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler, a long-time supporter of the national Democratic party, foresaw developments not long ago when he observed “Southerners of good will have fought for decades for moderation and a two-party system and, now, that we’re getting it, God save us from it.”
While election returns may portray the unholy demise of a solid Democratic South to party regulars, the sum of Republican victories is most likely a big step towards restoring the solid South—the conservative solid South. Since the 1948 presidential election and the walkout at the Democratic National Convention of Dixiecrats led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in protest of the civil rights plank, the national Democratic party and the Southern Democratic state and local officials’ party have gone their separate ways. This enduring split has been the best political opportunity for Southern Republicans to be elected to federal office.
Since the split of the Democratic party, incumbent Democrats who go to Washington have been susceptible to the Republican attack that they have become a part of the “Washington crowd” of the Democratic, big-spending, wasteful government officials who’ve lost touch with their constituents. What Mississippi’s former segregationist Gov. John L. Williams recently said of Ronald Reagan on the campaign stump has been the appeal of Southern Republicans for decades: “He is a man of the party of Lincoln who believes in the principles of Jefferson.”
In a South where Thomas Jefferson may no longer be second even to the Confederate memorial statue as the symbol of resistance to the federal government (at least to the working politicians), Republican victories in 1980 occurred usually where Democrats were convincingly described as too liberal, too much a part of the Washington crowd, and too beholden to minority groups.
As Birmingham Rep. John Buchanan now knows, local Republicans are willing to clean their own house for the sake of conservatism even if it runs the risk of losing one of their seats in the South. Buchanan and most of the Southern Democrats whose voting records of the last two years had drifted from traditional Southern political conservatism will not be returning to Washington (see companion story).
Every defeated Democrat south of the Mason-Dixon and west of Amarillo, except for Herman Talmadge, has probably thought or said that Jimmy Carter is to be blamed for their fate. While he may be responsible for his own defeat, Carter can’t easily be held responsible for the Republican Southern sweep.
The notion of a presidential candidate’s political coattails is not what it used to be, if it even can hold true by any definition today. In federal elections in the South, especially, it is hard to find those White voters who nowadays pull only one party lever and quickly leave the voting booth. Early Southern county and precinct returns for the November election show that most voters who chose Reagan as president and a successful Republican con-
gressman also voted for local and state Democrats. On the other side, probably as many as half of the voters who supported Democratic congressional candidates in the South supported Ronald Reagan for president. If Carter had really driven folks out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican, the Democratic casualty list would have been long indeed.
Large numbers of Southern Black voters do still vote straight tickets in the South and they did so this year—again for the Democrats. In early returns from predominantly Black precincts, results show that Jimmy Carter’s plea to the Black community was heard and that Blacks responded in impressive numbers. For Democrats in the cities and the rural, largely Black populated areas, the Black turnout and their strong party support was a major part of the Democratic vote in local, state and congressional races. These were votes that could have stayed home.
Although there weren’t any political coattails, Ronald Reagan surely helped cause the defeat of congressional Democrats by spurring a heavy turnout of suburban White voters and establishing an attractive campaign agenda which lesser Republican candidates could use in the South. The theme of “getting the government off the backs of the American people so they can do what I know you do so well” was by the end of the election a Reagan cliche that other Republicans put into their own advertising and stump rhetoric. In a region that voted overwhelmingly in 1968 for Richard Nixon and George Wallace, in that order, the conservative, anti-Washington slogan of the Reagan campaign provided an excellent tempo for the Republican congressional candidates.
For those observers who watch Southern politics over time, the presidential election was probably not much of a surprise. Since Lyndon Johnson, the South’s other native president in this century, carried only six Southern states in 1964, presidential elections in the South have been largely Republican affairs. In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon carried the South. In 1976, Carter defied the trend successfully and carried the region—with not only the advantage of regional pride but also an anti-Washington campaign. Promising a government “as good as its people,” Carter had all the needed credentials four years ago—a native son, a conservative record as governor, and a theme appealing to the Southern antipathy for an enlarging federal government. With those themes, Carter carried the South by only about 4 percent. In this election he was only a native son and carried only his home state.
Despite the landslides, future Republican gains in Congress are certainly not assured. The Democratic machinery still has a stronghold in the South at local and state levels and with Democratic state legislatures redrawing congressional lines over the next couple of years, Republican congressmen may not be able to establish a base of support in only two years to survive strong Democratic challengers and re-districting.
President Reagan will likely have a better time in the future South. Unless the last 16 years of Southern presidential politics are interrupted by a new Democratic coalition, Ronald Reagan will probably act as the South’s new favorite son for as long as his constitution and the country’s permit.
Steve Suitts is acting editor of Southern Changes.