Regionalization Looms for Republican Party

The Southern base of the party is ideologically supreme but can’t win national elections.

2012 American presidential election map, showing support for Mitt Romney per state.

Since the crystallization of the modern two-party system, Republicans have been able to rely on solid majorities in the conservative Southern states of the United States. As the nation has become more politically polarized, however, this very dependence on the South could start to undermine Republicans’ chances in elections elsewhere.

The regional divide on the American right was clear from last week’s budget vote when 90 percent of Southern Republicans in the House of Representatives rejected a compromise agreement with Democrats to avert the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of spending cuts and tax increases that was set to go into effect automatically on January 1 unless Congress acted to prevent it. The deal maintained low-income tax rates for the vast majority of Americans while raising them on the highest income earners. President Barack Obama’s payroll tax cut was also allowed to expire while funding for unemployment insurance extended another year.

The more conservative Republicans opposed the law because it raised taxes at all and did nothing to rein in federal spending which they see as the real problem. Most Republican congressmen from other regions sided with the Democrats in voting for it nevertheless.

There has long been a divide within the Republican Party between fiscal and social conservatives, many of them from the South, and more liberal Republicans who not always opposed Democrats’ social policies and are less reactionary on cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage. The second group has been relegated to the sidelines of Republican policy in recent years and appeared to be teetering on the brink of extinction.

“An increasing challenge for Northeastern Republicans, and West Coast Republicans, for that matter, is the growing perception among their constituents that the Republican Party is predominantly a Southern and rural party,” Dan Schnur, a former party campaign strategist, told the Los Angeles Times

Yet in several states that lean Democratic in national elections, Republicans managed to win legislative and gubernatorial elections in 2010. Prominent examples include Chris Christie in New Jersey and Scott Walker in Wisconsin who, despite pursuing controversial education, fiscal and labor reforms, won reelection or are expected to.

In places like New Jersey and Wisconsin, Republicans win when they don’t adhere to party orthodoxy. Unlike Southern congressmen and senators whose districts and states are so conservative that their only threat to reelection is a primary challenge from the right.

The South alone doesn’t enable Republicans to win the presidency or a majority in the Senate, however. They must compete in the swing states that determined the outcome of last November’s election where actually voters who identify as either conservative or moderate outnumbers those who lean left. In Iowa and Ohio, where Barack Obama won reelection narrowly, even relatively more voters identify as conservative than nationwide.

Exit poll revealed that in most swing states, voters agreed that government should do less. Two years earlier, Republicans had staged huge victories there when they ran on restraining government spending, keeping taxes low, reducing the regulatory burden on businesses. In 2012, when presidential candidate Mitt Romney was associated with fringe positions on abortion and immigration, the party lost critical constituencies which tipped the election in the Democrats’ favor even in areas that otherwise lean Republican.

More than 80 percent of Americans believes that global warming is real. A majority recognizes that human activity contributes to it. More Americans now support gay marriage than don’t. An overwhelming 67 percent of Americans favored letting gays serve openly in the military. The minority on all these issues is mostly composed of Southern or evangelical Republicans whose social conservatism is unappealing to a younger, urban and more informed electorate that may otherwise share their views on the proper size and scope of government.

If the Republican Party is to avoid regionalization and continue to compete nationally instead, it has to balance more cosmopolitan views against its reactionary wing — without turning into a centrist version of the Democratic Party in the process. Such a realignment process would be a lot easier if there is a political leader who can unite the conservative factions, which makes the presidential election of 2016 all the more vital for Republicans.