Politics

A Brief History of the South Carolina Democratic Party

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Beginnings of the SC Democratic Party 

The South Carolina Democratic Party is the oldest political party in the state, tracing its beginnings back to the late 1700’s, just a few years after the Revolutionary War. Charles Pickney, a prominent South Carolina legislator, is considered the leader of the early Democratic Party in the state, sharing Thomas Jefferson’s view that the Constitution was rigid and that if a law was not directly mentioned in the Constitution, then it was illegal. Pickney supported Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican party in the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson won and John Drayton, a state Democratic-Republican won the governorship. 

Democratic-Republicans and their successor, the Democrats, saw repeated success in the South with state party leader and federal legislator John C. Calhoun being one of the party’s biggest leader’s during the Antebellum Era. The Democratic Party held the governorship of the state until 1865 when the Civil War ended. The party however regained their hold on the governor’s mansion in 1876 when former Confederate general Wade Hampton III was elected and the state’s modern Democratic Party was formed. The party then held the governorship successfully for almost a century. 

During the first half of the  twentieth century, the Democratic Party had a stronghold within South Carolina. With the exception of 1948 when South Carolina voted for the Dixecrat candidate, the state’s own senator Strom Thurmond, the electoral college votes always went to the Democratic nominee until the presidential election of 1964, when the state supported Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for President. During this time period, all of the state's U.S. Senators and House of Representatives except for one were Democrats as well as nearly every member of the General Assembly and local elected officials. 

The changes that the end of World War II brought to the South Carolina political landscape were profound. Many white voters and politicians were against the integration of the Armed Forces and later other aspects of society that Democratic political leaders supported.  Because of an increase in integration efforts, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party, first becoming a Dixiecrat and later a Republican. 

At the state level, the number of elected Democrats steadily declined from the 1970’s to the mid 1990’s. In 1974, Republicans would claim the governorship for the first time since Reconstruction with the election of James Edwards. Democrats regained the office in 1978 with the election of Dick Riley before the election ofCarroll Campbell in 1986. 

South Carolina further shifted from being a solid Democratic state to a Republican state throughout the second half of the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. The last time a Democratic governor was elected was in 1998 with the election of Jim Hodges. A Democrat has not held statewide elected office since 2006 when Jim Rex beat Karen Floyd in the State Superintendent of Education race. 

Notable SC Democratic Chairs

Edgar Allan Brown

Brown served as chair of the party from 1922 to 1926. During his tenure, he was also a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and served as Speaker of the House from 1925 to 1926. After failing to win a Senate seat from incumbent Ellison Smith, Brown was elected to the state senate where he served from 1929 until his retirement in 1972. Brown was also president pro tempore of the Senate from 1942 to 1972.

Lawerence Marion Gressette

Gressette served as chair of the party from 1953 to 1954. He is notable for his forty-seven years spent as a South Carolina state legislator and for the creation of the Gressette Committee which opposed the integration of public schools. Gressette later became in favor of integration, speaking out for the integration of Clemson College in 1963. 

Donald Fowler

Dr. Fowler was chair of the state party from 1971 to 1980. Under his tenure, he saw the first Republican governor elected since Reconstruction but also saw Democrats retake the governorship with the 1978 election of Richard Riley. Fowler later served as National Chair of the Democratic National Committee for two years from 1995 to 1997. 

William Jennings Bryan Dorn

Dorn was the leader of the state Democratic Party from 1980 to 1984, succeeding Don Fowler. Dorn had previously been the representative from South Carolina’s third congressional district from 1946 to 1948 and again from 1950 to 1972. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1974, being beaten by James Edwards. After his tenure as chair, he retired from politics and taught at Lander University and USC Upstate.

Dick Harpootlian 

Harpootlian has served as party chair for two separate terms; once from 1998 to 2003 and again from 2011 to 2013. He was previously the solicitor for the Fifth Judicial Circuit of South Carolina until 1995 when he began practicing law privately. Harpoolitan is currently the state senator for the 20th Senate District. 

Joe Erwin

Erwin was elected chair of the party for two terms, serving from 2003 to 2007. His tenure saw two presidential primary debates take place in South Carolina; one in Greenville and another in Orangeburg. His chairmanship’s main focus was on reorganizing the party at the grassroots level to build a stronger foundation. Erwin currently owns his own firm Erwin Creates and co-owns Endeavor Greenville. 

Carol Fowler

Fowler, the wife of former chair Dr. Donald Fowler, served as party chair from 2007 to 2011. Under her leadership, the historic 2008 Democratic presidential primary took place in South Carolina and helped nominee Barack Obama secure the eventual nomination. 

Jaime Harrison 

Harrison became the first African-American chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party when he served from 2013 to 2017. After his tenure, he unsuccessfully ran for Senate against Lindsey Graham in 2020 and was appointed chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2021 by President Joe Biden. 

Trav Robertson

Robertson was chair of the party from 2017 until 2023 when he announced he would not seek a fourth term. Under Robertson, the state Democratic Party saw the most candidates file to run in 25 years, took the first Congressional district seat and elected the first female sheriff in the state of South Carolina. 

Christale Spain 

Spain succeeded Robertson as the current party chair in 2023. She is the first Black woman to chair the party and is the founding chair of the party’s black women caucus. 

Notable Wins

  • Cunningham vs. Arrington (2018): Joe Cunningham defeated Katie Arrington in the 2018 midterm elections. Cunningham flipped the first congressional district seat for Democrats winning 50.6% of the vote to Arrington’s 49.2%. 
  • Rex vs. Floyd (2006): Jim Rex defeated  Karen Floyd in the 2006 State Superintendent of Education race. Rex defeated Floyd by 455 votes. 
  • Hodges vs. Beasley (1998): Jim Hodges won over incumbent Republican governor David Beasley in the 1998 gubernatorial election. Hodges beat Beasley 53% to 45%. 
  • Hollings vs. Hartnett  (1992): Democrat Fritz Hollings successfully defended his seat against Republican Tommy Hartnett in what was an unusually close election. Hollings won by 3%. 

Notable Losses

  • Cunningham vs. Mace (2020): Cunningham lost re-election to the House of Representatives in 2020 being defeated by challenger Nancy Mace. Mace beat Cunningham narrowly taking 50.6% of the vote to Cunningham’s 49.3%.
  • Harrison vs. Graham (2020): Jaime Harrison attempted unsuccessfully to flip Republican incumbent Lindsay Graham’s Senate seat for the Democrats in 2020. Graham beat Harrison with 54.4% of the vote to Harrison’s 44.2%. 
  • Tenenbaum vs. DeMint (2004): Inez Tenenbaum lost her bid to replace retiring Senator Fritz Hollings in the 2004 election to Republican Jim DeMint who flipped the seat. Tenenbaum received 44.1% of the vote while DeMint received a majority with 53.7%. 

Today, the South Carolina Democratic Party is the minority party throughout the state. Democrats are the minority in both the state house and senate and hold no statewide elected office. 36 out of the 124 members of the State House are Democrats and 15 out of the 46 state senators are Democrats One member of the South Carolina House of Representatives delegation is a Democrat, James Clyburn who represents the 6th Congressional District for the state and neither of the senators are Democrats. 

Although Democrats are in the minority, they have had some notable wins recently including Joe Cunningham beating Katie Arrington in the 2018 midterm elections for the 1st Congressional District seat and Heather Bauer beating incumbent Republican state representative Kirkman Finlay. 

Title photo: Travis Bell/STATEHOUSE CAROLINA

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