How the South Is Bringing Down the Grand Old Party
Policy + Politics

How the South Is Bringing Down the Grand Old Party

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Southern hospitality might be killing the GOP with kindness.

States below the Mason-Dixon Line have provided House Republicans with a citadel for advocating for massive spending cuts—a situation that has enabled the constant budget stand-offs with President Obama, a situation repeated this week with the release of dueling partisan budget proposals.

But the regional dominance appears to be a mixed blessing for a party struggling to improve its national stature and deal with its floundering popularity. Sixty-three percent of the country sees the GOP as “out of touch with the American people,” according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.

In recent months, Republicans in Mid-Atlantic States have become increasingly disgruntled with many of their brethren. Most of the GOP House majority tried unsuccessfully to block $50 billion in aid to the eastern seaboard victims of Superstorm Sandy, demanding the emergency funds be offset with spending cuts.

“Shame on you,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-NJ, thundered on the House floor. “What does the misery index have to get to for our constituents? A new caucus should be formed. We have a lot of caucuses here. It should be the hypocritical caucus, because when you wanted the money five minutes before the storm was over, you didn’t have any hesitation coming to us and asking us. And yes, I’m angry. You’re changing the rules for hundreds of thousands of people in the middle of the game.”

It took a unique coalition of 179 Democrats and 49 Republicans to pass Sandy relief in the House last January.

The GOP holds 97 of the 138 southern seats in the U.S. House, with the Dixie delegation making up almost 42 percent of the party’s majority. For the first time since the conclusion of the Civil War, Republicans also control majorities in every southern statehouse.

The Deep South—bolstered by some western congressional districts—has endowed the GOP caucus with enough votes to block most spending initiatives and stiff-arm Obama’s “balanced” approach to deficit reduction.

“When they hear ‘balanced,’ they think more taxes to support more programs they are against,” said Emory University professor Merle Black, co-author of the book Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics. “From their perspective, why should they take advice to ‘moderate’ their positions on economic issues from Republican politicians and strategists in states where the Republican Party is struggling?”

House Republicans would rather repeal the expenditures associated with Obamacare and slash discretionary spending, instead of forging a deal with a White House that is requesting a tax hike on wealthier Americans—for a second time this year—in exchange for reforms that limit entitlement spending.

The stalemate reflects how geography has become entwined with an ideological drive to shrink the federal government.

Like the two ends of a magnet, the South serves as both a source of attraction and repulsion.
This dynamic might be the biggest issue not on the official 17-page agenda for the CPAC Conference (Conservative Political Action), which opened Thursday at a resort outside Washington, DC with speeches by the likes of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and panels on immigration, the “Europeanization of America,” “bullying” by Obama, and how the United Nations is ruining the “American Way of Life.”

The strength and liability of the GOP’s southern contingent is often overshadowed by its Midwestern leaders—such as Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

But the dilemma posed by the South is hardly a secret.

The New Republic devoted a cover story by Sam Tannehaus last month to the “Original Sin” of a southern-style GOP whose modern political philosophy draws heavily from the emphasis on states’ rights by 19th Century slavery apologists.

Earlier this year in the Southern Political Report, Hastings Wyman—a South Carolinian who has worked for Republican politicians—concluded, “For reasons both current and historic, ours is not a region prone to compromise.

“Redistricting – aided considerably by the Voting Rights Act – has created lots of very white and very Republican districts that will reward a representative who sticks to conservative principles without sacrificing them to political expediency,” Wyman continued. “This means that the region’s Republican officeholders are unlikely to give national GOP leaders the wiggle room they might need to appeal to voters not currently inside the party’s not-big-enough tent.”

Much of the usual narrative about the GOP’s rise in the old Confederacy involves sensitive issues about race. Southerners drifted away from Democratic fold after President Lyndon Johnson ended racial segregation by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The GOP’s economic message—critical of taxes and regulation—also appealed to a region that was starting to emerge from decades of poverty. Over the past 50 years, the southern economy has grown 30 percent faster and area employment increased 35 percent than the rest of the country, Richmond Federal Reserve Bank President Jeffrey Lacker noted in a 2011 speech.

As incomes have started to converge between the relatively prosperous north and ascendant south, so have political attitudes.

The Pew Researcher Center broke down its February 26 poll on perceptions of the GOP on a regional basis for The Fiscal Times. Sixty-one percent of southerners deem Republicans to be out of touch, while 53 percent consider them “too extreme” and 55 percent say they are not “open to change.” The findings hew remarkably close to national averages.

In addition to the Sandy vote earlier this year—which also prompted outrage by Republicans such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Rep. Pete King--Two major recent votes help to explain what has shaped this perception.

At the start of the year, the lame duck 112th Congress approved a fiscal cliff agreement with President Obama. The deal—which easily cleared the Democratic-majority Senate—extended the lower tax rates first introduced in 2001 and 2003 by George W. Bush for 99 percent of the country but raised rates on household incomes above $450,000.

Northern House Republicans voted 70 to 67 for the deal, while southerners opposed it 84 to 15 even though without a compromise the entire country would face a $4.6 trillion tax increase over 10 years.

Among the 15 southerners voting for the compromise were House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and others with connections to the leadership. Many explanations for the nay votes resembled the statement from Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga.:  “I cannot support a bill that makes such a mockery out of the very serious spending addiction that has crippled our country’s livelihood and taken a toll on the American people. … This bill passes on one of the largest tax hikes in decades, and it makes these higher rates permanent.”

All 12 GOP congressmen from Pennsylvania supported the agreement—with justifications along the lines of suburban Philadelphia Rep. Jim Gerlach: “An across-the-board tax hike would have meant fewer jobs and made our economy's climb out of this recession even steeper.”

Obama easily won Pennsylvania in last year’s election, while doing little to court most southern states.

But the overall tenor of conservative lawmakers in the Keystone State tends to be less obstinate, in part because Republican candidates often need to receive the backing of unaffiliated voters, said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant from Pennsylvania.
“We don’t have a long line of obstructionists here,” Nicholas told The Fiscal Times. “They want government to work. The people, the constituents, are just tired of this never-ending inertia.  I think they’re tired of that, regardless of their ideology.”