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David Broder

GOP butts its head against a big blue wall

WASHINGTON — It was not all that long ago that political reporters were writing about "the Republican lock" on the White House. From 1972 to 1988, from Richard Nixon's re-election through George H.W. Bush's victory over Michael Dukakis, 24 states supported the GOP nominee each time.

By the end of the run, those states could deliver 219 electoral votes, leaving only 51 others to make up a majority.

But now the Republican electoral lock has been replaced and surpassed by "the blue wall." That's the term Ronald Brownstein, the political director of the Atlantic Media Co., applies to the Democrats' advantage.

In an important article in a recent National Journal, Brownstein notes that there are now 18 states and the District of Columbia that have voted Democratic at least five times in a row, supporting Democrats from Bill Clinton through Barack Obama. Those states — concentrated in the Northeast, the upper Midwest and on the Pacific Coast — provide 248 electoral votes, 29 more than the old Republican lock and more than 90 percent of the Electoral College majority.

Democrats also hold at least 33 of the 36 Senate seats from those states (with the Minnesota race still undecided), 12 of the 18 governorships and the vast majority of House and legislative seats. The wall appears to be solid.

But as one who is more impressed with the volatility of American politics, especially in this age of lightly held or nonexistent party loyalties, I am skeptical of terms like "electoral lock" or "blue wall."

Still, if real-world confirmation of Brownstein's thesis were needed, the Republican National Committee furnished it on Jan. 30 when it elected Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, as the first African-American in that post.

It was the clearest possible signal that the GOP realizes it must escape the shackles of its ideologically binding Southern strategy and compete in a more diverse, pragmatic and intellectually challenging environment.

I have written before about the way the election losses of 2006 and 2008 left the House and Senate Republicans even more dependent on those elected from Southern states. The attrition in the Northeast, Midwest and West has been heavy, and ever since Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich started the trend back in 1994, the national party has spoken more and more with a Southern drawl.

Brownstein noted that several of the 18 states in the blue wall had been part of the earlier Republican lock. California, Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont switched sides, in part as a reaction against a Republican Party dominated by the South and defined by its conservative positions on abortion, immigration, stem-cell research and the teaching of evolution.

The states that are part of the blue wall have distinctive characteristics. As Brownstein wrote, they "combine large numbers of well-educated, affluent and less-religious whites with substantial numbers of racial and ethnic minorities, including sizable immigrant populations."

They rank high in the proportion of college graduates and residents who are foreign-born, and their median income tops the national average. They lag in church attendance. Every one of those traits makes them less receptive to the message being offered by most Republicans.

Maryland, where Michael Steele built his political base, and the District of Columbia, where he has practiced law, are building blocks of the blue wall. After losing a Senate race in 2006, Steele understands how great a disadvantage the party label is in places like his home. He is pro-life, as are most Republicans. But his message to his party is to broaden its appeal and to raise its sights. When Steele defeated the former Republican chairman of Lee Atwater's and Strom Thurmond's South Carolina, the ancestral home of the Southern strategy, in the final round of voting for the RNC chairmanship, it sent a dramatic signal of change from the old ways and the old alignments.

It will obviously take much more than that to put the GOP into a position to challenge the blue wall — and the hard fights all lie ahead, in the primaries for candidates in 2010 and 2012, and in the policy debates within the Senate and House GOP caucuses.

Clearly, Republicans have to change if they are going to climb that wall.

David Broder's e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.

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GOP butts its head against a big blue wall 02/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 1:00am]

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