washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is the South the GOP’s Base or Shackle?

Ronald Brownstein has a new National Journal article, “For GOP, A Southern Exposure” discussing how much of the Republican’s hopes for a return to domination are anchored in the south. Much of Brownstein’s article will be of more interest to political historians than those concerned with forward-focused political strategy. But he does provide insightful observations, including this about the Republicans’ recent experience in the region :

In the House and Senate, nearly half of all Republicans were elected from that region, defined as the 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Kentucky and Oklahoma. In each chamber, Southerners are a larger share of the Republican caucus than ever before. Similarly, beginning with the 1992 presidential election, the South has provided at least 59 percent of the Electoral College votes won by the GOP nominee, including by George W. Bush in his 2000 and 2004 victories. That percentage is nearly double the South’s share of all Electoral College votes and by far the most that GOP presidential nominees have relied on the region over any sustained period.
…Elsewhere, though, the GOP’s presidential performance has tumbled in recent election cycles. Democrats have won at least two-thirds of the Electoral College votes outside the South in each of the past five elections. Even Bush won only about 30 percent of the non-Southern Electoral College votes in 2000 and again in 2004.

Of course, this is not the same thing as saying the region is hopeless for Democrats, as (then) Senator Obama so ably demonstrated in NC, VA and FL and as is indicated by southern Dems holding office in the U.S. congress, governorships, state legislatures and mayoral postions across the region. However, as Brownstein explains:

In both chambers, Republicans have surrendered some Southern seats since 2006 because of the public’s widespread disillusionment with Bush’s performance. (Most notably, Democrats have gained 11 Southern House seats.) But, the GOP still holds 56 percent of the region’s House seats and 19 of its 26 Senate seats.

Brownstein points out that the GOP share of non-Southern House seats has plunged to just 33.5 percent and 28 percent of U.S. Senate seats as a result of the last two elections, and “In both chambers, the Republican conference is now considerably more concentrated in the South than ever before.” He quotes GOP pollster Whit Ayres, an expert on Southern races, noting that Republican control of the South “looked great when we were holding on to our Northeastern and Midwestern seats and continuing to sweep the South…The challenge arises when the rest of the country says, ‘I don’t believe the same things,’ or ‘I don’t admire the same candidates,’ as the South does.” Brownstein continues,

Since Bush’s re-election in 2004, the GOP has lost ground electorally in the South and the rest of the nation. But the erosion has been much more severe outside the South. That dynamic has threatened Republicans with a spiral of concentration and contraction. Because the party has lost so much ground elsewhere, the South represents an increasing share of what remains — both in Congress and in its electoral coalition. The party’s increasing identification with staunch Southern economic and social conservatism, however, may be accelerating its decline in more-moderate-to-liberal areas of the country, including the Northeast and the West Coast. “Many of the things they have done to become the dominant party in the South have caused them to be less successful in other places,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, a South Carolina native.

And the concentration of Republican power in the South has a price:

…Some GOP strategists are gingerly suggesting that staunchly conservative Southerners are putting too much of their own stamp on the party, especially on social issues. GOP consultant Mike DuHaime, political director of McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said that “everybody in the party is concerned” about the GOP’s decline along the coasts and in the Upper Midwest. “It’s important that we always keep our base [in the South] as part of our party, but we need to have the ability to disagree on certain issues. That’s the only way we are going to expand,” he said. Republican pollster Ayres concurs. “The South is an incredibly important part of the Republican coalition, but it’s not sufficient to win,” he said. “You may very well have standards that are somewhat different for a Republican in the Philadelphia suburbs than you do for a Republican in Alabama.”

He argues that the Dems’ great southern hope is the rapidly growing percentage of Latinos and Asians in the region.

…The growth of other nonwhite populations, such as Hispanics and even Asians, is strengthening Democrats across the region, especially in the outer South, and even in portions of the Deep South such as Georgia. These “new minority” voters functioned like a thumb on the scale last year for Obama in Virginia (where they reached 10 percent of the vote) and North Carolina (where they comprised 6 percent). They were also instrumental in tipping Florida to the Democratic presidential nominee. “When you add the Democratic vote among African-Americans with that of the new minorities, that means the share of the white vote a Democrat needs to win goes down,” notes Merle Black.
Eventually, Hispanic population growth might even threaten the Republican hold on Texas, where whites last year constituted just 63 percent of the vote, the same as in California. Demography alone probably won’t flip Texas: To capture it, Democrats will almost certainly need to improve their performance among whites there, too. (Obama won just one-fourth of them, compared with twice that in California.) But at the least, Black notes, the growing nonwhite vote is allowing Texas Democrats to become competitive again in the state that has functioned as the jewel in the crown for Southern Republicans.

As Latinos and Asians pour into the region, a more vigorous pace of naturalization becomes a critical challenge for Democrats hoping to take a larger bite out of the South. A few well-funded naturalization projects could make a great difference in Democratic prospects in the southern states. Forcing Republicans to invest more resources in defending their southern base, even as they struggle to make needed gains in other regions, could weaken their prospects everywhere — and help to secure a new era of Democratic growth across the nation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.