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 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 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 top income earners. President Barack Obama’s payroll tax cut was also allowed to expire while funding for unemployment insurance extended another year.
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 Democrats in voting for it.
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 are not necessarily opposed to left-wing 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 and is 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 strategist, tells the Los Angeles Times.
Yet in several states that lean Democratic in national elections, Republicans managed to win legislative and gubernatorial elections in 2010. Examples include Chris Christie in New Jersey and Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Despite pursuing controversial education, fiscal and labor reforms, such governors are winning reelection — or likely 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 is not enough to give Republicans the presidency or a Senate majority. They must compete in swing states where voters who identify as either conservative or moderate outnumber those who lean left. In Iowa and Ohio, where Barack Obama won reelection narrowly, even relatively more voters identify as conservative than nationwide.
According to exit polls, most voters in most swing states agree with Republicans that government should do less.
Republicans won the 2010 midterms by running on keeping government spending and taxes low and reducing the regulatory burden on businesses.
In 2012, when presidential candidate Mitt Romney was associated with fringe positions on abortion and immigration, they lost even in areas that otherwise lean Republican.
More than 80 percent of Americans believes 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 these issues lives in the South.
If the Republican Party is to avoid regionalization and continue to compete nationally, it has to balance more cosmopolitan views against its reactionary wing — without turning into a centrist version of the Democratic Party.
Such a realignment would be easier if Republicans can find a leader who is able to unite the various conservative factions, which makes the 2016 presidential election all the more important.