Politics & Government

Yes, Candace Owens, the GOP’s Southern strategy happened

Candace Owens says the Southern Strategy is a ‘myth’ while testifying to Congress

Conservative commentator Candace Owens denies the strategy used by Republican candidates to use racial themes to win Southern votes in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.
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Conservative commentator Candace Owens denies the strategy used by Republican candidates to use racial themes to win Southern votes in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.

The Buzz is The State’s weekly, sometimes irreverent look at happenings in S.C. politics and state government.

How the South shifted from blue to red was back up for debate after a contentious congressional hearing this week.

During a U.S. House hearing on hate crimes and the resurgence of white nationalism, conservative commentator Candace Owens caused a stir when she denied the existence of a “Southern strategy” on the part of the Republican Party.

However, historical documentation and experts in South Carolina say she’s flat wrong.

The Southern strategy was an effort by Republicans to win over white Southern voters who traditionally supported Democrats during the changes of the 1960s civil rights movement, often using racially-charged appeals.

Owens, communications director with the conservative group Turning Point USA, told congressmen flatly the strategy “never happened” and, like current concerns about a racist resurgence, is an attempt by Democrats to “scare black people.”

Instead, Owens claimed it is African American conservatives such as herself who are under attack for having “the audacity to think for themselves and become educated about our history and the myth of things like the Southern switch, the Southern strategy, which never happened.”

That claim was widely debunked by experts, including South Carolinians who study the South’s political development in the 20th century.

“In my course, we discuss this,” said Drew Kurlowski, a political science professor who teaches Southern politics at Coastal Carolina University. “Race is an important issue in the South, and it’s disingenuous to say it isn’t.”

Kurlowski says racial appeals were a key part of the South’s switch from a solidly Democratic region after the Civil War to one now dominated mainly by Republicans.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the first GOP nominee to win the Deep South — including South Carolina — in almost 100 years, thanks in part to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act supported by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond switched from Democrat to Republican that same year.

Kurlowski said later Republicans, such as President Richard Nixon, used less “overt appeals” to win over the same voters who supported Goldwater or segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

“You used coded language, ‘welfare,’ ‘law and order,’ ‘crime,’ to activate latent feelings on race,” he said.

The late S.C. political operative Lee Atwater, who went on to manage George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign and chair the Republican National Committee, spelled out the strategy in a famous 1981 interview. Atwater said Republican candidates could use racist words to describe African Americans, including the N-word, in the 1950s but had to switch to more veiled language by the late 1960s.

”So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract,” Atwater said. “Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Harry Dent, another South Carolinian and former Thurmond aide, is credited with crafting the Southern strategy that carried Nixon to a win in South Carolina on his way to the White House in 1968 and 1972. With the exception of Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1976, the state has voted for a Republican for president ever.

“It wasn’t the same heated rhetoric as George Wallace, but it was code words that, particularly Nixon, used to get Southern voters,” said Gibbs Knotts, professor at the College of Charleston. “Nixon made a play for George Wallace voters, he was able to win a lot, and they were not going to go back to George McGovern,” he said of the liberal Democratic nominee in 1972.

But unlike Thurmond, most incumbent Democrats of the era never switched parties while in office. Instead, a slower change in voting habits trickled down from the presidential level. Republicans have held the S.C. Governor’s Mansion all but four years since 1986. The party won its first majority in the S.C. House in over a century in 1994, and Republicans have held the state Senate since 2000.

While Knotts says race was not the only motivating factor in the South’s change from red to blue, denying it played a role is “revisionist history.”

As this week’s hearing shows, the issue isn’t just historical either. Kurlowski says race became a more salient issue during the presidency of Barack Obama, even though the issue largely went untouched during the GOP campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney.

“Now, when Trump talks about immigration, he can activate a lot of those feelings that white people are losing a place of prominence in American politics and culture, without talking about divisions between black and white,” Kurlowski said.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.