The modern-day Republican Party began in Mississippi on 22 March 1956, though the party’s history in the state goes back an additional ninety years, to the wake of the Civil War. From 1868 to 1875 Republicans controlled the state government. The 1870 state legislature convened with 110 Republicans, 35 of them black. After ratifying the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, legislators moved to fill US Senate seats left vacant by secession. One went to Hiram Rhoades Revels, who became the first African American to serve in the US Senate. Four years later, the legislature appointed the second black senator, Blanche K. Bruce. John R. Lynch became the first black Speaker of the state house and then the first black Mississippi congressman. Over these seven years, black Republicans won election as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and superintendent of education. The 1874 legislature boasted 64 black Republican members, a black Speaker of the house, and a black president of the Senate.
White Democrats could not stomach African American political power, and employed both legal and illegal tactics to retake the legislature in the 1875 elections. The first order of business when they assembled in early 1876 was to remove from office the white Republican governor, Adelbert Ames, and two African American Republican officials, Lt. Gov. Alexander K. Davis and superintendent of education T. W. Cordoza. Reconstruction had ended in Mississippi, and the memories would be long-lasting—88 years passed before Mississippi gave its electoral votes to a Republican presidential nominee for president, and 116 years elapsed before a Republican moved back into the Governor’s Mansion.
The successor to the party that managed state government during Reconstruction was known as the Black and Tan Republican Party. In 1924 Perry Howard, a Holmes County lawyer and the son of former slaves, assumed control of the party. Howard’s nemesis was George Sheldon, a former Nebraska governor who moved to Mississippi in 1909 and organized the Lily-White Republican Party in 1927. These two groups fought for control of the state GOP for the next three decades.
On 22 March 1956 the party held its state convention at the Hinds County Courthouse. The newly formed Young Republicans of Mississippi, headed by Wirt Yerger Jr., joined with the state chapter of Citizens for Eisenhower, headed by E. O. Spencer, to wrest control of the party from the Lily-Whites by electing a majority of the members of the new State Executive Committee, which then chose Yerger as the party chair, a position he held for ten years. Later in 1956, at the Republican National Convention, Yerger and his followers outmaneuvered the aging Black and Tan leadership and took control of the state party apparatus. They then began to build Mississippi’s modern Republican Party.
Mississippi’s Republicans believed that both national parties took the South for granted—or, more precisely, wrote it off—and sought to reverse that political calculus. They wanted a South involved in the highest reaches of government and sought to reorient the Republican Party away from its northeastern liberalism and toward a conservatism rooted in the South and West. Yerger and his colleagues in other states organized their parties around the single goal of electing Republicans to public office. In Mississippi, they achieved their earliest tastes of success in 1963, when Rubel Phillips, a lifelong Democrat from Alcorn County, was recruited to switch parties and run for governor as a Republican, and 1964, when Barry Goldwater was the GOP’s presidential nominee. Phillips surprised even the most optimistic projections by earning almost 40 percent of the vote, and the news was even better in 1964, when Goldwater, one of only six Republican US senators to oppose passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, carried Mississippi with more than 87 percent of the total vote. His stunning victory allowed his coattails to help an unknown Republican candidate for Congress in Mississippi’s 3rd District, Prentiss Walker, defeat the twenty-two-year Democratic incumbent, Arthur Winstead.
In 1966 Clarke Reed, a member of the State Executive Committee from Greenville, replaced Yerger as the party’s chair. In 1972 Republicans Thad Cochran and Trent Lott were elected to the US House of Representatives. Three years later Republican gubernatorial candidate Gil Carmichael came within a few percentage points of defeating Cliff Finch. In Reed’s final year as chair, 1976, the Mississippi Republican Party nearly disintegrated over the issue of whether to support Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan as the party’s presidential candidate. Mississippi ultimately surprised the nation by helping Ford secure the nomination, and the state became a battleground in the November election, though Democrat Jimmy Carter took both Mississippi and the presidency. Mississippi’s Reagan supporters harbored hard feelings for many years afterward.
In 1978 Cochran moved from the US House to the Senate after the retirement of Mississippi’s senior senator, James O. Eastland, defeating Democrat Maurice Dantin and independent Charles Evers. Cochran became Mississippi’s first Republican senator since Bruce’s departure in 1880. He has won reelection six times, most recently in 2014, and his office and his length of service have enabled him to eclipse the party chair as the state’s most important Republican.
For the next twenty years, as senior Mississippi Democrats retired from Congress, Republicans took their places. Lott succeeded Sen. John Stennis in 1988. Roger Wicker succeeded Rep. Jamie Whitten in 1994. Chip Pickering succeeded Rep. Sonny Montgomery in 1996. On 31 December 2007, after Lott’s resignation from the Senate, Wicker was named to the seat, and he won a 2008 special election to fill the remainder of Lott’s term as well as a full term in 2012.
And in the state elections of 1991, Republicans finally reached the goal for which they had worked since 1963. Vicksburg contractor Kirk Fordice recorded an upset victory over Democrat Ray Mabus to become the first Republican since 1875 to occupy the Governor’s Mansion. Fordice was easily reelected in 1995. Though Ronnie Musgrove returned the office to Democratic hands in 2000, Republican Haley Barbour quashed Musgrove’s 2003 reelection bid. Republicans have subsequently retained the office, with Barbour winning reelection in 2007 and Phil Bryant succeeding him in 2011. Bryant won reelection in 2015 with an overwhelming two-thirds of the popular vote.
Mississippi appears poised to remain solidly Republican for the foreseeable future. The state has backed the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1980, and in 2016, both of the state’s US senators and 3 of its 4 House members were Republicans. The GOP also held 8 of the state’s 11 executive positions, 32 of the 52 seats in the State Senate, and 74 of the 122 seats in the State House of Representatives.
- Ballotpedia website, ballotpedia.org
- Harry S. Dent, The Prodigal South Returns to Power (1978)
- David J. Ginzl, Journal of Mississippi History (1980)
- Billy B. Hathorn, Journal of Mississippi History (1985)
- Neil R. McMillen, Journal of Southern History (May 1982)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2005 (2006)
- Martha H. Wilkins, “The Development of the Mississippi Republican Party” (master’s thesis, Mississippi College, 1965)
- Jules Witcover, Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972–1976 (1977)