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How South Carolina Elected Its First Republican Governor in 100 Years

By Edited May 4, 2016 0 0

      In 1974, the idea that the solidly Democratic state of South Carolina would elect a Republican governor seemed preposterous. The state had not elected a Republican governor since 1876, and in many gubernatorial elections the GOP did not even put up a candidate.

     This situation began to change during the early 1960s. Many South Carolinians opposed both the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans and the federal government's increased intervention in the affairs of their state. Because many in the Democratic Party, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, supported the Civil Rights Movement, South Carolinians began to question their loyalty to the party. Then, in 1964, Senator Strom Thurmond, South Carolina's most popular politician, joined the Republicans. The Republicans mounted their first serious campaign for the Governor's Mansion in 1966. Joseph O. Rogers, Jr. won 41.8% of the vote and lost to Democrat Robert McNair. The Republicans fell short again in 1970 when Albert Watson lost to John West.

     It looked as if the Republicans might lose again in 1974. A young businessman named Charles "Pug" Ravenel energized the Democratic Party. Ravenel had the support of a group of Democrats known as the "Young Turks" because they opposed the old Democrat leaders in state government. Ravenel easily won the Democratic Party primary against one of the old Democrats, United States Congressman William Jennings Bryan Dorn.

     The Republicans placed their hopes in General William Westmoreland. Westmoreland had been the commander of United States forces in Vietnam and was popular in his home state despite his association with the Vietnam War. Westmoreland turned out to be a poor campaigner, however, and he did not connect with voters. In the Republican primary, Westmoreland lost to a relatively unknown state senator and former oral surgeon from Charleston named James B. Edwards.

     Ravenel seemed destined for victory, but approximately six weeks before the November election, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Ravenel had not lived in South Carolina long enough to be considered a resident of the state. Although a native of Charleston, Ravenel left the state to attend college at Harvard and then worked as an investment banker in New York City until 1972. Dorn, the old-guard Democrat that Ravenel defeated in the Democratic Party primary, became the Democrat's candidate instead. Disilluisioned Democratic voters stayed home, and Republican James B. Edwards won 50.3% of the vote. Edwards had an especially strong showing in the more urban areas of Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville-Spartanburg.

     Because both houses of the state legislature remained firmly in the hands of the Democrats, Edwards sought to build bridges with the opposition party. Although Edwards was popular he did not run again in 1978 because at that time South Carolina did not allow governor's to serve more than one term. In 1981, he entered Ronald Reagan's cabinet as Secretary of Energy. In 1983, he became President of the Medical University of South Carolina, a post he held until 2000.

     As for South Carolina politics, the Republican victory in 1974 was no fluke. South Carolina did elect a Democratic governor in 1978 and again in 1982. Since 1986, however, Republicans have held the governor's seat almost continuously. Jim Hodges' one term as governor form 1998 until 2002 is the only exception. Thus, even though the circumstances surrounding Edwards' election in 1974 were somewhat strange, his term as governor constitutes a turning point in South Carolina's political history.

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