How solid is the South?

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Bernie Niemeier, photo by Mark Rhodes

Political lore holds that after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson turned to an aide saying he feared that Democrats had lost the South for a generation.  This oft-quoted but never validated story seems to ring true, despite the reality that the often-crude and always politically crafty Texan would likely have reserved such dewy-eyed sentimentalism only for his native Lone Star State.

In truth, it would be many decades before the Democrats actually lost the South.  At the time, the Republican Party was weak in the region, and Southern Democrats were far more conservative than most Republicans.

Southern Democrats, among them Virginia’s Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., filibustered against bringing the Civil Rights Act to the Senate floor for a vote.  The filibuster was broken by Republicans and Northern Democrats. Republican support for civil rights reform in fact ran high in both the House and Senate.  Eighty percent of House Republicans and 82 percent of Senate Republicans backed the Civil Rights Act, outpacing Democratic support in both chambers.

Just weeks after the law’s passage in 1964, a contentious and splintered Republican Party selected conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona as its nominee for president over liberal New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Goldwater lost the election in an unprecedented landslide. He carried only six states, his home state plus Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.  Despite Goldwater’s loss, this marked the beginning of the slow transformation of a once reliably Democratic “Solid South” into a new political landscape.

The South resolidified in subsequent presidential elections.  In 1968, George Wallace, the segregationist Democratic governor of Alabama, ran as an independent, winning Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas in an election won by former Vice President Richard Nixon, a Republican.  In 1972, Nixon formulated a “Southern Strategy,” quietly positioning his party as more conservative, sweeping the South and winning the popular vote in 49 of the 50 states. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the Democratic nominee, carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

At the state level, ongoing party defections over many years further shifted the South to the Republican Party. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina switched from Democrat to Republican in 1964.  North Carolina’s Jesse Helms switched in 1970 and later became a U.S. senator. 

Also in 1970, Virginian Harry F. Byrd Jr., after serving out his retiring father’s Senate term, switched from being a Democrat to run for election as an independent. Mills Godwin, elected governor of Virginia as a Democrat in 1965, switched parties and was elected again as a Republican in 1973. In 1970, Tom Bliley was elected mayor of Richmond as a Democrat; 10 years later he won the first of his many congressional races as a Republican.

Is Virginia a part of the “Solid South?” Arguably not.

Johnson won the commonwealth in 1964.  In 1968, Virginia tipped for Nixon, who won just over 43 percent of the vote. One-third of Virginia’s voters went for Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with the remaining quarter supporting Wallace.

In 1972, along with the rest of the nation, Virginia overwhelmingly voted for Nixon. In 1976, Virginia’s electoral votes went to Republican President Gerald Ford; while every other Southern state voted for that year’s winner, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.

From 1980 to 2004 along with most of the South, Republican candidates won every presidential election in Virginia. However, Virginia broke with almost all Southern states in 2008 and 2012, voting for Barack Obama.  In 2016, Virginia was the only Southern state not carried by Donald Trump.

Looking back, the idea that the South was swiftly delivered to the Republican Party by Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act is actually a misreading of history.  After decades of change the “Solid South” is still far from being as politically uniform as some might be inclined to believe.  And more than most Southern states, Virginia remains in play.

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