By Dwight Lambert, professor of political science, University of South Carolina at Spartanburg
South Carolina's February 19 Republican presidential primary is the third in the country and the first in the south. The primary plays out against the backdrop of South Carolina's unique politics. The 19th century continues to loom large in South Carolina. In 1961, the state's General Assembly authorized flying the Confederate Flag on the state capitol in celebration of the Civil War Centennial; the flag soon became a symbol of defiance over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1999, the NAACP initiated an economic boycott to remove the flag, thus initiating a conflict emblematic of the changing politics of the state. Incomprehensible elsewhere, the symbolic value of the flag for South Carolinians is remarkable. A proud symbol of honor and the "noble cause" for many, to others the flag is an embarrassing symbol of racism and slavery. The coalition to remove the flag summarizes the changes in the state: it includes much of the state's business community, local governments, and religious leaders--an unusual coalition in state more accustomed to the politics of elitism.
The flag pits rural Republicans from mostly white districts against suburban Republicans whose constituents are more willing to see a compromise. Governor David Beasley's opposition to video poker together with his willingness to remove the flag contributed to his failed 1998 re-election bid. His defeat corresponded to the best electoral showing for the Democrats in decades; the 1998 elections left the Democrats with a two-seat advantage in the state senate and the Republicans with a five-seat advantage in the house. The redrawing of state election districts by the next General Assembly means that both parties are determined to control of the state house, making partisan division more intense.
The Governor and other Democrats
Despite early gaffes like not opening the interstates to one-way evacuation traffic for hurricane Floyd and, to the dismay of Democrats, failing to fight for the confirmation of a labor union member to the State Ports Authority, Democratic Governor Jim Hodges has successfully used the governorship to set the state's political agenda. Emphasizing education reform, Hodges took advantage of Republican disarray following the 1998 election to push through pre-school programs and bonds for new school construction. Polling shows the education issue is a popular one. Republicans cannot afford to appear obstructionist. In response to the Governor's initiatives, they espouse "transferability," allowing public school students to transfer to another school district, an idea opposed by most Democrats in the state assembly.
State Republicans are likely to latch themselves to their national party candidate while the Democrats will more loosely follow the lead of the Democratic governor by emphasizing education improvement. The Republicans are also trying to capitalize on promises of tax cuts. National candidates will have a difficult time balancing the changing mixture of conservatism and modernism that have come to characterize South Carolina. Television ads by Senator McCain remind viewers of his war record and independence, powerful appeals in this deeply conservative state; ads by Governor Bush have promised to restore dignity to the White House. Should Bush stumble in New Hampshire, the South Carolina primary will take special importance. The volatile, emotional, and symbol-rich politics of South Carolina make it impossible to take the state for granted.