Even if Georgia Turns Blue, North Carolina may not FollowRoundup
tags: Georgia, Senate, Southern history, political history, North Carolina
Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of political science and is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC. He is founder and contributor to OldNorthStatePolitics.com, a blog that focuses on North Carolina and U.S. politics.
Virginia Summey is a historian and faculty fellow in the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
This year’s presidential election saw Georgia go blue for the first time since Bill Clinton secured its electoral votes in 1992. Yet, in the South’s other most competitive contest, President Trump eked out a narrow win with the closest margin of victory of any state he carried. The rest of North Carolina’s electoral outcomes cast more of a purple hue over the state, with a mix of Republicans and Democrats winning statewide seats. While pundits analyze what Georgia going blue means for the rest of the South, North Carolina’s complex electoral history shows that for the Old North State, the future is really anyone’s guess, thanks to the historical push and pull of reactive politics in the state.
In political history, actions often produce reactions. In 1948, North Carolina delivered the lowest percentage of support of any Southern state for Strom Thurmond’s segregationist Dixiecrat presidential bid. A year later, political scientist V.O. Key published his landmark study “Southern Politics in State and Nation,” in which he labeled the state a “progressive plutocracy,” stating that North Carolina “has a reputation for fair dealing with its Negro citizens.”
The next year, 1950, however, saw the opposite reaction emerge in the Democratic nomination battle for a U.S. Senate seat that pitted Frank Porter Graham, known for his anti-racist views, against race-baiting Willis Smith. Aside from race-baiting tactics, which included a campaign flier saying “Wake Up White People …. Frank Graham Favors Mingling of the Races,” the Smith campaign was notable for the introduction of a young campaign aide, Jesse Helms, who shaped North Carolina’s conservative politics for the rest of the 20th century. Smith narrowly won the Democratic nomination runoff battle, showing that Key’s description had missed some of the state’s complexity.
The mid-20th century also saw what scholars Merle and Earl Black called “The Great White Switch”: conservative White southerners began migrating from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. This regional realignment came into stark relief in 1964, when, first Thurmond switched parties, and then five deep Southern states flipped for conservative Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
Like many other White Southerners, North Carolina conservatives saw increased rights for African Americans as an affront to Whiteness, as evidenced by the strong 1968 showing of segregationist third-party presidential candidate George Wallace in the eastern part of the state. As these disaffected conservatives increasingly identified with the Republican Party, national figures such as Richard Nixon and Helms (who officially switched to the Republican Party in 1970) tailored their message to attract these voters. Helms’s 1972 U.S. Senate victory was aided by his conservative editorials at the Capitol Broadcasting Co., which generated a loyal following of rural, conservative White Democrats dubbed “Jessecrats” who rebelled against the more liberal dynamics in the national Democratic Party.
But at the same time North Carolina’s reactive conservatives never rebelled against changing social norms as quickly or strongly as in other Southern states because of the moderate tone struck by Democrats.
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