From Humble Origins to Dominance: Mississippi’s GOPBy Sandra Knispel | Published 20 Feb 2012 11:54am |
Today, the Mississippi GOP controls both Houses and holds every statewide office with the exception of the Attorney General’s. But, as MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports, 50 years ago, Republicans were struggling to find a toehold in this state.
[nat sound] “What was it like to call yourself a Republican in 1956 in Mississippi?" Moderator Bill Rose asked. “It was dangerous [laughter],” Yerger replied.
It may be hard to believe, but half a century ago, the Republican Party in Mississippi was basically non-existent. It had no public office holders and was a far cry from the dominant political player that it has become over the last two decades. Speaking during a panel discussion at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, moderator Bill Rose asked Wirt Yerger, the state’s first GOP chairman, about the humble beginnings.
Rose: “How did the media treat you in the early days?” Yerger [laughs loudly]: “I mean scathing. They were vehemently against us, particularly the Clarion Ledger. Looking back, I can’t believe some of the things they said about us.”
Finding candidates proved tricky, recalled Mike Retzer, who served as the state’s GOP chairman several times since 1978.
“People who wanted to hold public office back when Wirt started the party and Clarke carried on and myself, weren’t Republicans. You know, it was suicide to go out and be a Republican," Retzer said.
It wasn’t until the political re-alignment in the late 1980s that so-called Southern Democrats began voting more in line with their ideological core values, which were really much closer to Republican Conservatism than Democratic Liberal thinking. Up to this point, white Southerners after Reconstruction had largely shunned the GOP because of Republican President Abraham Lincoln. Eventually, national election victories paved the way, says Clarke Reed, who became Mississippi GOP chairman in 1966.
“Things did get moving and we had a major breakthrough," sais Reed. "In 1972, on Nixon’s coattail we elected Lott and Cochran to Congress. And that began our candidate move.”
Today, the GOP controls both state Houses and virtually holds every statewide office in Mississippi – a first since Reconstruction. From humble origins the state’s GOP has become such a dominant force that a slew of Democratic incumbents have recently switched party affiliation to increase their chances as Mississippi voters continue to move to the right.
Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.
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