COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It took all of a day for Margaret Gamble and Mickey Whatley to learn what life would be like as Democrats in the Republican-controlled South Carolina House of Representatives.
A few hours after the two representatives startled the Southern political world this month as the first Republicans in the state to become Democrats since the end of Reconstruction, they were stripped of their positions on two prestigious committees and moved to the Military, Medical, Municipal and Public Affairs Committee, which has so few responsibilities that not a single Republican serves on it.
The House speaker, David Wilkins, said he was sending them there to achieve party balance on their former committees, not as punishment.
But the treatment of the two defectors, and the angry ridicule heaped on them by Republican leaders, made it clear what a painful and possibly pivotal moment this was for the state party.
"Those two have been voting with the enemy for years," said Henry McMaster, the chairman of the South Carolina Republicans. The two have been members of an increasingly isolated species in the South: moderate Republicans, who often feel at odds with their party's hard line.
As the Democrats regain their footing in statehouses from South Carolina to Mississippi, the GOP in many states has found itself dominated by religious conservatives desperate to retake control. "My family's been Republican since Strom Thurmond switched in the '60s," said Gamble, an administrator at the University of South Carolina. "This was a very emotional and very difficult decision for me. But I've been very disappointed in the House Republicans -- they just seem to have lost touch with people on the important things like education and senior citizens."
The long exodus of white Southern Democrats to the Republican Party that began in the 1960s appears to have halted, and many Democrats say they now have the momentum. While 15 Democratic state legislators in South Carolina became Republicans in the early 1990s, none has switched in the past three years. The same is true in Alabama, which had 50 major defections to the Republicans from 1994 through 1997, but has had only three since then.
The Democrats now control 24 of 30 legislative chambers in the South, and with the most recent defections, they are four seats away from controlling the South Carolina House.
"Five years ago, no one was talking about switching to the Democratic Party, but now we're starting to see it pick up," said Kevin Mack, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the arm of the national party that works at the statehouse level.
"The second generation of Republicans now coming of age just isn't bound to the party the same way," said Bill Moore, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.