Recasting conservatism: Georgia republicans and the transformation of southern politics since World War II
Ellett, Ashton Gene
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Emerging from the ashes of the Civil War South, the Republican Party of Georgia languished in political ignominy for almost a century. Generations of ineffectual leaders and a general antipathy toward the “Party of Lincoln” in the region rendered the Georgia Republican Party a distinct, powerless minority in the state. Examining the period between 1940 and the election of the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction in 2002, this dissertation analyzes the internal politics and party-building initiatives that transformed the Republican Party of Georgia into the state’s majority political organization. This study highlights the roles political party building and intraparty competition played in that consequential process. Patronage-obsessed leaders controlled the party until the 1940s when Republicans aligned with the national party’s “Eastern Establishment” triumphed. Rooted in metropolitan Atlanta, these Republicans constructed a moderate alternative to the state’s rural-dominated Democratic Party. Supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign captured the party in 1964 and set it on a more conservative trajectory. Nevertheless, the state party remained structurally weak and unable to compete reliably against politically savvy Democrats and their biracial coalition of voters. Reeling from Watergate and Governor Jimmy Carter’s meteoric rise in the mid-1970s, Georgia Republicans embraced a forward-looking party-building program that laid the foundations for future political success. Organizational improvements in fundraising, recruitment, campaign support, and voter outreach enabled the party to capitalize on long-term demographic shifts in the state and the influx of social conservatives into the GOP during the 1990s. The Georgia Republican Party has continued to expand its political power since 2002. Utilizing private correspondence, internal party documents, voting data, oral history transcripts, and contemporary newspaper records, this dissertation explores the complex, incremental party-building and political realignment processes in Georgia. The Republican Party of Georgia has evolved from a politically isolated nonentity into a modern political party. Ultimately, this dissertation underscores the importance of party organizations, campaigns, and electoral strategy in the protracted, uneven political realignment process that has transformed southern politics since World War II.