Not so long ago, there were so few Republicans in South Carolina that it was possible to hold a party meeting in a phone booth.
While this joke and similar versions of it – told for years by the people who cultivated the party – are overkill, it is not far off.
This can be difficult to understand for newcomers to a state where Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, hold all state seats and hold only two seats in Congress.
And South Carolina has voted for the Republican presidential candidate for the past 56 years, with the exception of Georgia’s smiling neighbor, Jimmy Carter, in 1976. Across the country, only Utah has been so red for the presidential ticket in the past six decades.
The last time a Democrat won a state post in South Carolina was 14 years ago, when Jim Rex passed, with a 0.04 percentage point advantage, to become superintendent of education.
But these newcomers, many from northeastern states in solid blue, are turning areas of the state purple, especially in Lowcountry, where they are meeting en masse. This helps to explain how state deputy Joe Cunningham turned the first coastal district back to blue in 2018 for the first time in 40 years and why former Democratic state chairman Jaime Harrison is in a tie with Northern Senator -American Lindsey Graham in the most expensive contest, by far, in the state’s history.
Speaking of history, although the South Carolina election vote trend for a Republican started with Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Grand Old Party essentially did not exist here at the time.
“In the old days, it was almost like a cult, to have so few legitimate Republicans,” said Neal Thigpen, a retired political scientist at Francis Marion University and a former Republican activist. “They were like newspaper parties. They never ran for anyone, except maybe a candidate here or there.”
One man made the difference: US Senator Strom Thurmond, who in September 1964 changed from Democrat to Republican – 16 years after his notorious run for president as segregationist Dixiecrat. Thurmond supported Goldwater, despite being told that he would not be able to be re-elected two years later in a state without a single elected Republican.
Thigpen remembers watching the ad on TV, amazed. As Thurmond spoke, the “D” behind his name on the screen “blew and an ‘R’ appeared,” he said.
This moment marked the beginning of what became the state GOP.
“What Strom’s change did was make it OK to be a Republican,” said Thigpen.
But it would take another 30 years to have enough support for Republicans in electoral contests for the House of South Carolina to pass to Republican Party control – and six more for the state Senate to follow suit.
Milestones in building the party along the way included Jim Edwards of Mount Pleasant becoming the first Republican governor since Reconstruction in 1974, also the first year in which South Carolina held a state Republican primary election. Only 20,000 South Carolinaians took the trouble to vote in this contest, almost half of them from Charleston County, which sealed Edwards’ primary victory.
Thigpen, who became a party organizer after moving to the state three years earlier, remembers sitting at a police station in Florence all day for three voters.
Many considered Edwards’ victory that November to be a fluke, with help from the state Supreme Court getting Democrat Charles “Pug” Ravenel off the plate six weeks before the election because of a residency challenge.
“It may have been a fluke, but he got the votes,” said Thigpen. “It was a significant thing.”
The 1980 Ronald Reagan revolution took the party to the next level, although Reagan defeated the state that November by just 1.5 percentage points, the narrowest presidential margin ever for South Carolina.
It was the presidential primary earlier that year – another first in the history of the Republican Party – that brought national recognition by elevating Reagan and led to an important first position in South South Carolina. Conceived by a state president who saw it as a chance to collect the names of voters to build the base, the primary worked as planned in a state where people are not yet registered by party.
But it was Carroll Campbell, elected governor in 1986, that many consider the architect of the modern state government.
The former Greenville lawmaker and congressman recruited Republicans to run for legislative and municipal positions and convinced Democratic lawmakers in conservative districts to change positions. He also appointed Republicans to various boards of directors.
“He was instrumental in cementing the Republican Party in the state,” said former Senator John Courson, elected to the Senate in 1984 after working for Thurmond and Reagan.
“It started to change dramatically,” said Courson, who became one of the few Republican House leaders who really started out as a Republican.
Majority leader in the House, Gary Simrill, first elected in 1992, remembers Campbell often telling the Republican bench of the then minority that his only power was to stay together.
There would be enough Republicans if they voted for a 43-member bloc to uphold Campbell’s vetoes.
Although York County is now seen as Republican territory, Simrill, the son of a three-term Democratic lawmaker, was the only Republican running for Rock Hill in 1991, when people told him “you can’t be elected Republican”.
When the state chamber came under the control of the Republican Party after the 1994 elections, Republicans were not really the majority. The chamber itself was split equally between 62-62 between the parties, but a single vote by a Democrat put a Republican in charge as chairman of the council.
Likewise, the Senate was tied after the 2000 elections. An exchange of parties for the late Verne Smith of Greenville, after more than a decade of twists and turns, put the GOP in control.
20 years later, Republicans have a majority of 27 to 19 in the Senate and 79 to 45 in the House. The House had 80 Republicans earlier this year, until Peter McCoy of James Island left to become a US attorney and voters elected a Democrat to replace him.
“Change is coming,” said Thigpen. “Things are loosening along the coast.”