Wealthy executives bankrolled Talmadge’s numerous political campaigns, while many white farmers supplied the votes. (He served three terms as the state’s governor — two from 1933 to 1937 and one from 1941 to 1943.) Talmadge was a vocal opponent of the New Deal, yet he depended on the support of those impoverished Georgians who stood to benefit from many federal programs. The journalist Robert Sherrill, in his book “Gothic Politics in the Deep South,” explained why “the people” still stood by Talmadge: “Old Gene had never done anything for them, but he made them feel like people, fit for laughter, supreme over the black man at least, and sharing with him the sly knowledge that since only the rich could profit from government, the poor man was foolish to take government seriously.”
In many ways, Talmadge — though he was a Democrat and his party backed the social programs of the early New Deal — created a blueprint for today’s Republican Party. He combined racial animus with anti-government rhetoric, piled up votes among rural whites and exploited a system that gave those voters disproportionate power.
In the Georgia Senate races, the Republicans’ most insistent line of attack is that a Democratic-controlled Senate will lead America to socialism. Ms. Loeffler’s opponent, Mr. Warnock, would become Georgia’s first African-American senator. In one debate, Ms. Loeffler referred to “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” no fewer than 13 times. (Mr. Warnock responded that his economic philosophy derived from Matthew 25.) This is not so different from the way Talmadge raged against the New Deal as a socialist-inspired plot that would bring racial equality to Georgia.
Talmadge defended white supremacy and encouraged his supporters to use intimidation and violence to keep Black voters away from the polls. After losing a bid for re-election in 1942, he ran again for governor in 1946. He whipped white Georgians into a frenzy. Just before a Democratic primary in July, Talmadge told a crowd, “If I’m your governor, they won’t vote in our white primary.” In Butler, a veteran named Maceo Snipes cast his ballot in that primary election, becoming the first African-American to vote in Taylor County. The next day, four white men went to Snipes’s home and shot him. Snipes died days later.
Roughly 85,000 Black Georgians voted in that election, though tens of thousands were disenfranchised — by either voter purges or outright intimidation. An estimated 98 percent of African-Americans voted for Talmadge’s opponent James Carmichael, a businessman and more moderate Democrat. Carmichael won the popular vote by more than 16,000, but Talmadge won a solid majority of county-unit votes — and he thus won the primary election. (Talmadge also won the general election but died before his inauguration.)