A Brief History of the South Carolina Republican Party


Beginnings of the SC GOP

While the national Republican Party was established in the 1850s, the South Carolina branch was not formed until after the Civil War in 1867. During this Reconstruction period, only Black males and white males over 21 who had not aided the Confederacy were eligible to vote. This set the stage for the shaping of political alignments in the state, dramatically altering its political landscape.

The first Republican elected was Robert Kingston Scott in 1868, serving as South Carolina’s governor from 1868 to 1872. He was succeeded by two more white Republicans during the Reconstruction Era: Franklin J. Moses Jr. in 1872 and Daniel H. Chamberlain in 1874. 

During this era, Black Republicans played a prominent role in South Carolina politics. In 1870, Joseph Rainey became the first directly-elected African-American to serve in the United States House of Representatives. Throughout the Reconstruction Era, which lasted until 1877, five other Black Republicans represented South Carolina at the federal level, advocating for policies aimed at improving the lives of freed slaves and ensuring their rights as citizens.

At the state level, 75 Black and 35 white Republicans served in the South Carolina State House of Representatives, and 10 black and 15 white Republicans served in the state senate, beginning with the election of 1868. Republicans maintained a stronghold over the state branches of government until the disputed gubernatorial election in 1876. The Democratic candidate, Wade Hampton, won, and the Democratic Party gained the majority in the statehouse in 1877, leading to the increased disenfranchisement of Republican voters.

Throughout the late nineteenth century, fewer Republican candidates got elected, especially after 1895 when Black voters were disenfranchised following the Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court case and the enforcement of Jim Crow Laws across the South.

The Republican Party's influence dwindled throughout the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, holding no seats in the legislature and not nominating a gubernatorial candidate since 1878. A resurgence began with the 1964 presidential election, where Barry Goldwater carried South Carolina, receiving 58.9% of the popular vote, though losing nationally.

1964 also marked a significant year as Senator Strom Thurmond switched his party allegiance from Democrat to Republican. South Carolina voted Republican in every presidential election from 1964 until the end of the century, except for 1976 when the state backed Jimmy Carter.

The state GOP gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s, with more conservative whites joining the party. Republican Carroll Campbell was elected governor in 1986, then re-elected in a landslide in 1990. Campbell was succeeded by David Beasley, a former Democrat who switched parties in 1994.

The state legislature saw significant Republican growth, culminating in the party securing the majority in the House of Representatives in 1995 and both houses after the 2000 election. This made South Carolina the first Deep South state to have a Republican majority in both state legislative branches at the time.

In 2010, Republicans elected Nikki Haley as South Carolina’s first minority and female governor. Haley appointed Senator Tim Scott, the state’s first African-American senator since 1881.

Notable SC GOP Chairs

Robert B. Elliott

Elliott served as the first chair of the South Carolina Republican Party from 1874 to 1880. Before his chairmanship, he was the associate editor of the Missionary Record and was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868. Elliott was then elected to the US House of Representatives in 1871, where he served until 1874 when he resigned to fight political corruption in the state.

Edmund William McGregor Mackey

Mackey succeeded Elliott as chair of the party from 1880 to 1884. In addition to his role as chair, Mackey was a member of the House of Representatives from 1875-1876 and then again from 1882-1884. Prior to being elected to the House, he practiced law in Charleston and served as the local sheriff. He also served two terms in the statehouse representing Charleston County.

Robert F. Chapman

Chapman served as chair of the party from 1961 to 1963 after retiring from the Navy. During his tenure as chair, Chapman operated his private law firm practice in Spartanburg. He was later nominated by former President Richard Nixon to serve as a U.S. District Judge and was then appointed by Ronald Reagan to serve as a judge for the U.S. Fourth District Court of Appeals.

J. Drake Edens Jr.

Edens is commonly recognized as the father of the modern South Carolina Republican Party. He served as chair from 1963 to 1965 and led South Carolina’s 16-person delegation at the 1964 Republican Convention, ensuring Barry Goldwater would be the nominee. Edens led Goldwater’s campaign in South Carolina and resigned from state chair in 1965 to serve as the Republican National Committeeman for South Carolina.

Harry S. Dent

Dent served as chair of the party from 1965 to 1969. He is known as one of the architects of the Southern Strategy, which helped get Richard Nixon elected President in 1968. Dent was also instrumental in Nixon's win in the 1968 Republican presidential primary.

C. Kenneth Powell

Powell served as SC GOP party chair from 1971 to 1974. During his tenure, the state party saw James B. Edwards elected as the first Republican governor in South Carolina since the Reconstruction Era.

Daniel I. Ross Jr.

Ross led the state party from 1977 to 1979 during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. He is credited with ensuring that South Carolina was the first southern state to vote in both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. Ross focused heavily on fundraising and grassroots political campaigns.

Van Hipp Jr.

Hipp was the state party chair from 1987 to 1989. During his tenure, he served as a member of the Presidential Electoral College and was a speaker at the national Republican Convention in 1988, where he introduced former Speaker Newt Gingrich. He is currently the chairman of American Defense International Inc., a D.C.-based consulting firm, and the author of “The New Terrorism: How to Fight It and Defeat It.”

Henry McMaster

McMaster led the state party from 1993 to 2002, during which time the party gained control of the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature. He resigned from his post in 2002 to run successfully for attorney general, and later became the 117th governor of South Carolina in 2017 after Nikki Haley resigned to serve as U.N ambassador.

Katon Dawson

Dawson, who served as chair from 2002 to 2009, increased the party's outreach to minority groups and preserved South Carolina’s “first in the South” presidential primary by moving the Republican primary from February 2 to January 29.

Karen Floyd

Floyd was the first woman elected to chair the state Republican party, serving from 2009 to 2011. During her tenure, the party won all statewide constitutional offices and added a Republican congressional seat. Nikki Haley and Tim Scott were elected governor and senator, respectively, under her leadership.

Matt Moore

Moore, one of the nation’s youngest state party chairs, served from 2013 to 2017. He co-chaired South Carolina’s delegation to the 2016 Republican National Convention and was a member of the convention’s Rules Committee. He also served as a member of the Presidential Electoral College in December 2016.

Drew McKissick

Currently serving since 2017, McKissick led the party during the 2022 general election, which saw Republicans gain a supermajority in the state legislature. He was a co-chair of the Republican National Committee until his resignation in February 2024 to work directly with the Trump campaign and RNC.

Notable Wins

  • Sanford vs. Hodges (2002): Mark Sanford defeated incumbent Democratic governor Jim Hodges, marking the beginning of an unbroken Republican hold on the governor's mansion.
  • De Mint vs. Tenenbaum (2004): Jim DeMint won the Senate seat previously held by Fritz Hollings, flipping it for the Republicans, who have held both Senate seats ever since.
  • Campbell vs. Daniel (1986): Carroll Campbell's gubernatorial win solidified the GOP's resurgence in state politics.

Notable Losses

  • Bauer vs. Finlay (2022): Democrat Heather Bauer defeated Kirkman Finlay, flipping the House District 75 seat.
  • Cunningham vs. Arrington (2018): Joe Cunningham flipped SC-01 from Republicans, a significant loss given the district's previous Republican stronghold.
  • Rex vs. Floyd (2006): Jim Rex's victory over Karen Floyd in the Superintendent of Education race marked the last statewide win for a Democrat.
  • Hodges vs. Beasley (1998): Jim Hodges' win over incumbent Republican governor David Beasley was the last time a Democrat won the governor's mansion.

Today, the South Carolina Republican Party is the dominant political force in the state. The party controls the governorship and enjoys a robust majority in both legislative chambers. Specifically, Republicans hold a supermajority in the State House and a significant majority in the Senate. This strong political presence is bolstered by the state's conservative voting patterns in federal elections, with Republicans holding both U.S. Senate seats and the majority of the U.S. House seats.

Title photo: Travis Bell/STATEHOUSE CAROLINA

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