FOR the century and a quarter of the Republican Party’s existence, the largest stumbling block to control of Congress has been the Democratic “Solid South.”
Along the populated states on either side of the Mason-Dixon line, as GOP analyst John Morgan notes, Americans long voted the way their ancestors fought in the Civil War. In the 11 old Confederacy states the only traditional Republican districts were in the Appalachian hills of North Carolina and Tennessee that once supported the Union cause. Last week’s remarkable congressional elections suggest that the South may be uniting again, but this time behind the Republican party. It is enough to make Jefferson Davis spin in his grave – and William Jefferson Clinton chew his nails.
In presidential races the first cracks in Dixie appeared with Herbert Hoover’s election in 1928, but it was Second World War hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, in two successive elections, who broke it open for Republicans.
In 1960, the U.S. Senate seat vacated by newly elected Vice President Lyndon Johnson was won by Republican John Tower and the present congressional realignment really began. Civil rights controversies and the weight of Great Society programs pushed many Dixiecrats into the GOP column after Barry Goldwater’s defense of states’ rights in 1964.
But of at least equal influence, air conditioning and economic development made the South more attractive as a home for retiring and aspiring Yankees. Many had Republican leanings. One in the aspiring category was Newt Gingrich, a young college professor from Pennsylvania – now of suburban Atlanta and soon to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Now the recent congressional elections have produced a Republican majority in the South for the first time since Reconstruction. The GOP has 13 Senate seats, the Democrats nine. In the House of Representatives, the Republican edge is 64 to 61. The South will never again be a Democratic preserve.
The new GOP seats in the South have compensated for the urban districts lost to the Democrats in the North since the last time the GOP had such control, 40 years ago. They make the Republicans a truly national party for the first time, and raise expectations for the next phase of realignment – majority control of state legislatures and county courthouses. They raise doubts, also for the first time, about the ultimate viability of the Democrats in the region.
To complicate the picture further, it is not widely understood that the Gingrich Republicans are intent on bringing black candidates and voters into the new Republican coalition. Many liberals say that the Republicans should do more to welcome black candidates, but whenever black Republicans arise, they are attacked by liberals as Uncle Toms. In the last Congress, for example, the bulk of the Congressional Black Caucus shunned its newest member, Republican Gary Franks of Connecticut (re-elected last week).
GOP congressional leaders this year backed a record 25 black candidates, several of them in the South and border states. Oklahoma, which as a territory enlisted for the Confederacy in the Civil War, elected to Congress a prominent African-American Republican, J.C. Watts of Norman. It is only a start, but so was Tower’s election in Texas in 1961.
The new Republican vision is of a majority in the Old South, the New South and at least a large part of the black South uniting in the Grand Old Party. As a successful long-term political strategy, it would have been completely comprehensible in his time only by Abraham Lincoln.