By Scott Buchanan

Once upon a time, there was a distinctly Southern state where tradition reigned supreme. Politics seemed to be controlled by the same families and there was hardly a Republican to be found. Then, very swiftly, Democrats lost their grip on political power and were swept away by the Republican Party, once an anathema. The Democrats fell so hard that their numbers dwindled to such a point that they all but lost hope of winning statewide office and saw Republicans come close to supermajority status in the state legislature. Some Democrats detected the winds of change and switched to the GOP, while more diehard Democrats were left to wonder how their fall from grace had happened so rapidly.

No, I am not talking about South Carolina; rather, I am describing Virginia in the early 1970s. From the end of Reconstruction until the 1960s, Democrats enjoyed hegemony in the Old Dominion. Democratic power was such that the party fell asleep at the wheel and did not detect the changing political landscape in the late 1960s. Part of that shift in Virginia was being driven by migration to the northern Virginia area, as Washington, D.C. began to grow ever larger. The net result of this early migration to the state was to bring conservative whites from other areas of the country to Virginia and those new transplants brought with them Republican affinities. Coupled with rural white conservatives who began voting Republican, it looked as if Virginia would be a thoroughly Republican state for the foreseeable future.

That Republican dominance has now ended in Virginia for the very reason it began: migration into the state. In the first two decades of the 21st century, new residents from around the country, around the world to a degree, have now moved into Northern Virginia. This latest iteration of migration though has been distinctly less conservative and more ethnically diverse and the Democrats have returned to having the advantage.

Some of my more partisan readers might be wondering now why I am giving any attention to Virginia. The reason is simple — S.C. is seeing enormous population growth presently and it is not altogether different from what Virginia saw beginning a generation ago. Though S.C. Republicans are in no real danger of losing their hold on power at this point, the next decade could portend political changes. The next census will not be taken until 2020, but the U.S. Census Bureau conducts annual population estimates for all 50 states. The official population count of the Palmetto State in 2010 was 4.6 million. In its 2017 population estimate, the Census Bureau has the state at 5.03 million.

Now you know why the traffic has become so bad in the last few years.

S.C. featured the tenth largest population increase in the nation. In a sign of how we are a nation moving southward (geographically speaking), Southern states constitute six of the top ten states in population growth across the nation during the last year. In other words, more people “from off” are moving into the state with ever greater frequency. Indeed, only 56 percent of state residents today are native-born Sandlappers. In terms of raw numbers, new residents to S.C. moved the most often from North Carolina, New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio during the last seven years.

Although the Census Bureau has not yet released county-level estimates for 2017, the five counties that grew the most between 2010-2016 were Greenville, Richland, Charleston, Horry and Spartanburg. Simultaneously, rural S.C. has seen a mass exodus of residents largely due to a lack of economic opportunities. In many ways, S.C. has become a tale of two different states. One, in which the economy is booming and migration is continuing to grow by the day; the other, a state that is sparsely populated and noted for high poverty rates. What is noteworthy is that census data indicates that the population growth is a combination of those seeking employment and those retiring here.

So, what of the political implications of this migration? As I alluded at the outset, the state’s political environment, which looks static at present, could see changes in the offing during the next decade. This will force both parties to adapt. Palmetto State Democrats, who have been largely disheartened for the last decade, could see the opportunity for growth among new residents to the state. However, the Democrats will have to make overtures that offer tangible promises to new residents. For Republicans, it is true that many of the new residents are Republican-leaning at present.

However, there is a huge difference between a New York Republican and a S.C. Republican. Largely these differences revolve around social issues. In the next decade, if Republicans hew a line that is overly focused on social issues, then it could provide an opening for Democrats. Yet, Democrats have to organize themselves better and provide a platform that is focused on a state government more responsive to the needs of new residents, while balancing their base in rural areas.

One closing thought — all of the population growth to the state is placing enormous pressure on infrastructure, especially roads. Though few like paying taxes, those revenues can produce tangible results. All it takes is a drive around Charleston between 8-10 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. to realize that migration to the area has long ago surpassed the infrastructure. Given the movement during the last few decades, it is unlikely to drop dramatically. Although it is fashionable among some Southerners to say that “they don’t give a damn how they do it up North,” the reality is that new residents to the state will eventually start making their voices heard in a dramatic way at the voting booth in the next 10-15 years. Some of them might give enough of a damn to care about how things are done here and seek changes to the status quo.

 

Dr. Scott Buchanan is a professor of political science at The Citadel. His research focuses on Southern politics.

 

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