Thursday, April 10, 2014

Getting the Party Started: Processing the Records of Georgia's Political Parties

Note: In February of this year, the Russell Library embarked on a one-year project to process the records of the Democratic Party of Georgia (Georgia Democrats) and the Georgia Republican Party (GAGOP), funded by a generous grant of up to $58,777 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). Because the records will not be open for research for several months, project archivist Angelica Marini will be providing a series of short articles throughout the year highlighting various aspects of the records as she works to organize, describe and make them available. In this, her first blog post for the project, she underscores the value of the Georgia Republican Party Records as an important resource for studying the historic political realignment of the state in the second half of the twentieth century.

A small sampling of the GAGOP records awaiting processing.

Once available for research, the Georgia Republican Party Records will be one of the largest processed collections of official state Republican Party records in the country and the largest in the Southeast. Complementing the University of South Carolina’s Republican Party of South Carolina Papers and Auburn University’s Alabama Republican Party Records, the Georgia Republican Party Records, dating from 1975 to 1998, are a unique collection of administrative records, political files, financial and fundraising materials, and campaign files that will enable researchers to gain new insights into the dramatic political realignment of the South in the twentieth century.

In 1960 there were only two Republican members of the State House and just one Republican State Senator in Georgia. The Georgia Republican Party was politically weak and the state was dominated by the Democratic Party of Georgia. It was not until later in the second half of the twentieth century that Georgia was a truly modern two-party political system. The records reflect this historical development of the party as the bulk of materials date from the later period. While the Republican Party collections in South Carolina and Alabama contain materials from the 1920s, most of the materials date from this modern period, 1960 to 2000. The bulk of the South Carolina Republican Party records date from 1962 to 2001 and the records of the Alabama Republican Party date from 1960 to 1994. Likewise the Georgia Republican Party saw their most significant gains after 1980 and the bulk of the materials date from 1980 to 1996.

What kept the Georgia Republican party from power for so long? The explanation requires a look at the political history of the South. An alleged political deal between Democrats and Republicans in 1877 brokered the end of Reconstruction. The contested presidential election resulted in a compromise between the parties that allowed for Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes to be seated in return for the end of federal military intervention in the South. Over the next twenty-five years, all across the South, the Republican Party lost what limited power they held during Reconstruction. The historical legacy of Reconstruction affected the political growth of the Republican Party far beyond the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, though, as the Democratic Party dominated Southern politics until the 1960s.

The national Democratic Party started to change in the 1960s and broadly supported civil rights legislation and aligned with more liberal policies. The changes in national party platforms alienated conservative Southern Democrats and by the 1970s many Southern states were in the process of moving to a Republican majority. In Georgia, this regional political realignment was influenced additionally by migration to the state. Beginning in the 1950s, state politicians and policies promoted Georgia as a friendly place for business. Republicans increased their favor as they promoted themselves as the political party that stood for business interests. Georgia Republicans also recruited party members from transplanted Northern Republicans. The first Republican since Reconstruction to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate, Mack Mattingly (originally from Indiana), noted that “What they [the Democratic Party] didn’t understand back then were what we call ‘demographics.’ They did not understand that the demographics of Georgia had changed – your IBMers from Indiana, you know, everybody from all different places – it had changed.” (Reflections on Georgia Politics Oral History Collection, ROGP 014 Mack Mattingly) These changes made a real difference in the political strength of the Republican Party in Georgia. By 1997, the Republicans elected 79 members to the State House and 22 members to the State Senate. The last decades of the twentieth century saw the Republican Party become a major political power in the state and in 2002, Georgians elected their first Republican Governor since Reconstruction, Sonny Perdue.

The bulk of the Georgia Republican Party Records date from a period of substantial political growth for the party. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Republican Party emerged as a powerful political opponent to the Democrats. The records document the party’s administration by Party Chairmen and Executive Directors. Political files include research materials maintained by the political directors, state convention materials, and county and district files. Financial records reflect the growth of the party through fundraising and events. The campaign records contain strategic planning documents and statistical analysis of election results using the ORVIS program (Optimal Republican Voting Strength) adopted in the 1980s. These records are an invaluable source of information for anyone interested in researching the growth of the Georgia Republican Party during an important transitional period.

Post by Angelica Marini, Project Archivist, Russell Library

No comments: