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"What Led to the Republican Resurgence? A new oral history project captures the memories of those who built the modern GOP"By William A. Link, Chair, Dept. of History, UNC-Greensboro, and Co-Director of the "N.C. Republican Party Project" Series for the Southern Oral History Program.
Reprinted with permission from the Raleigh News & Observer (July 6, 1997).
By any measure, the re-emergence of the North Carolina Republican party must be seen as a historical development of great significance for the state.
Republicans now control the state House, and both of North Carolina's U.S. Senate seats and half of its U.S. House seats, sit in the majority in 41 of the state's 100 county commissions, and are able to mount competitive races for most offices in the state.
At the very least, this has restored political competition at all levels of state politics; at the most, it signals a possible new majority status for a party long excluded from power.
Since the 1960s, North Carolinians have witnessed the end of one political system and the birth of another with important consequences for the public life of their state.
Political competition has brought obvious consequences; two-party competition is generally healthy for a democracy.
The resurgence of the GOP means that a political minority now has access to lawmaking and policymaking. There is now, as a result, greater discussion, more public display of information and options, with more alternatives presented to the public about issues.
At the same time, partisanship is more common in legislative politics. In issues as diverse as education to prisons, political leaders must consider more closely the partisan consequences of policy decisions.
Along with the disintegration of one-party rule by the Democrats and the re-emergence of a viable Republican Party came a new diversification of the state's political scene.
Thirty years ago, all elected officials were white and most were male; particularly in the past decade or so, African-American and female candidates have won elections in ever increasing numbers.
It is easy to forget that competitive, two-party politics is a relatively recent phenomenon.
During and after Reconstruction, while advocating equal civil and political rights for African-Americans, state Republicans won elections and remained politically viable until the late 1890s, when the Democratic Party successfully unseated them by means of a statewide campaign of terror and racism.
In 1900, Democrats imposed constitutional restrictions that disfranchised most North Carolina African-Americans - and thus much of the Republicans' political base.
As a result, for much of the 20th century Republicans became a party without an enfranchised constituency.
In a bid to adapt to the whites-only politics of the early 1900s, the party barred blacks from its leadership ranks and became "lily-white." Yet it would fare poorly in elections for decades to come.
Republicans survived these years by drawing upon two sources of nourishment: the continuing loyalty of whites in certain Piedmont and mountain counties, whose Republicanism dated from the Civil War, and the generosity of federal patronage during the administrations of Republican presidents.
Electoral victories were rare indeed.
Following the election of Daniel L. Russell in 1896, 76 years expired before North Carolina again elected a Republican governor, Jim Holshouser, who rode Richard Nixon's coattails to an upset victory in 1972.
The same year, Jesse Helms became the state's first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate since 1895 (when the General Assembly elected Jeter C. Pritchard).
Republicans in the General Assembly before the 1960s were so few that the Democratic majority either ignored them altogether or, when necessary, unilaterally manipulated the state's election rules and processes.
With Democrats requiring the statewide election of Superior Court judges, for example, in this century just one Republican judicial candidate was elected before 1994.
During the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican Party began successfully to build its support among white North Carolinians and other white Southerners, particularly those in the region's growing suburbs, with appeals on economic issues.
Then, during the 1960s, the civil rights revolution and the Great Society's expansion of federal welfare programs combined to loosen ties to the Democratic Party among many white North Carolinians.
The political toll became evident by the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Republican candidates began to win statewide elections by attracting disillusioned Democratic "crossover" voters.
Dealignment foreshadowed realignment - that is, a formal switch in party affiliation. Since 1968, Republican candidates have carried every presidential election in the state but one, Jimmy Carter's post-Watergate victory in 1976.
Still, what is striking about the Republicans' re-emergence since the 1960s is its slow, uneven pace. Although Republicans began to win elections focused on national issues during the late 1960s, their progress on the state level remained stalled until the 1980s.
Frequent ticket-splitting by registered Democrats during these years yielded a pattern of Republican majorities in national elections and Democratic majorities in local and state elections.
Progress made in constructing a statewide party apparatus was lost in the mid-1970s with the Watergate scandal, which brought disastrous results for Republican candidates. Meanwhile, potentially serious intra-party factional conflict erupted.
Some of this involved antagonisms between old-line Republicans and newly minted Democratic converts, some cultural and ideological tensions between New Right and moderate wings of the party.
In the past 15 years, North Carolina Republicans have translated voter appeal and strong financial backing into campaign victories.
Ronald Reagan, uniting the party around a charismatic national figure, carried the state in 1980 and 1984 - receiving 62 percent of the vote cast in the latter election.
The election of Jim Martin as governor by solid majorities in 1984 and 1988 united the party and solidified the GOP appeal to voters.
As a result of several factors - Reagan's and Martin's popularity, aggressive voter registration efforts, and the recruitment of attractive candidates - Republicans began to reap benefits in the General Assembly.
There were only nine Republican House members and one state senator in 1975; a decade later, there were 38 House and 10 Senate Republicans.
In the 1989 legislative session, GOP House members, their numbers having increased to 45, conspired with renegade Democrats and captured control of the House.
Then, in 1994, the Republicans were swept to victory, winning a majority in the House for the first time since Reconstruction.
The Republican resurgence should be understood as part of a broader process that is not unique to North Carolina.
Across the South, Republicans have established a solid presence; in some elections - especially presidential elections - they have created solid political majorities.
But challenges for Republicans remain.
The extent to which they can maintain their competitiveness depends on their coherence as a national party and their ability to avoid serious national and state divisions. Such divisions, which appeared in the last presidential election, impaired the ability of the party to present itself as a national party.
It also may be possible that Republicans will find that they have created a majority party in the South that is in the minority in national politics. For as Republicans have solidified their support in North Carolina in the 1980s, they have witnessed serious erosion in New England and the Far West.
To a certain extent, the Republicans' ability to win state elections rests on their ability to attract mainstream voters. Like the Democrats, Republicans possess a vocal and ideologically driven group that drives the party but, on occasion, alienates its mainstream constituency.
A final challenge is the ability of Republicans to govern. Long out of power, they must demonstrate to mainstream voters that they can identify the needs of voters, lead the state through the many challenges that confront it in the 20th century, and, above all, govern responsibly.
The Southern Oral History Program
Center for the Study of the American South
Love House and Hutchins Forum
410 East Franklin St., CB# 9127, UNC-CH
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9127