This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s Southern Strategy that accelerated the transformation of the South from a one-party system by cynically exploiting the success of the Civil Rights movement. Nixon’s strategists understood that integration forced on states from Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 alienated white working-class voters who dominated the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. With an assist from George Wallace, they used the resentment to divide the Democratic Party and break its hold on Southern states. They also set into motion the development of the modern GOP in the South.
In North Carolina, the strategy led to the 1972 election of Jesse Helms and his pandering to white resentment, a precursor of the Trump strategy today. Helms became the first Republican senator from the state in the 20th century. He consummated a deal with the devil between the business Republicans in Charlotte, the anti-war (Civil War) Republicans and the populists, often masquerading as evangelical Christians, who made up the white-supremacist wing of the Democratic Party.
That coalition survives in North Carolina today, but, as the populists become the dominant faction in the party, it’s breaking down in other parts of South. In Alabama, the business conservatives and Party of Lincoln Republicans abandoned Roy Moore, even though the populists and evangelicals stuck with him. The next test of the coalition will take place in Mississippi, the most Republican state in the nation.
Sen. Thad Cochran’s retirement sets up a special election in November. A Republican state senator named Chris McDaniel with a history of racist comments announced he is jumping into the race yesterday. He had planned to run in a GOP primary against incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and he barely lost to Cochran in a GOP primary in 2014 (a story in itself). The Republican establishment is not happy.
According to Mississippi law, the special election, though held on the same day as the General Election in November, will be nonpartisan. Several commentators have compared McDaniel to Moore. If Democrats field a strong candidate, they have an outside shot of picking up a Senate seat in Mississippi, especially since the Democrat won’t have a “D” behind his/her name.
These races in Alabama and Mississippi help explain why Republicans in North Carolina don’t want primaries for judicial contests this year. The base that they coddled and pandered to, but kept at bay, has taken over the party. In GOP primaries this Blue Moon election cycle, the only people voting might be the white resentment crowd and they could very well nominate unelectable candidates similar to Moore or McDaniel.
After 50 years, the Southern Strategy is finally coming back to bite Republicans. The GOP establishment invited the racist wing of the Democratic Party from the one-party South into their fold with the misguided belief that they would never have control. Now, they’re the dominant faction, especially in the South. Republicans who voted for the likes of Donald Trump on the rationale that he’s better than Hillary have to look in the mirror and convince themselves that a Roy Moore or Chris McDaniel is better than any Democrat. It’s a hard sell — especially if they want to sleep that night.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com, a website of commentary and analysis. Originally published at politicsnc.com.