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GOP's Southern stampede

Since the midterms, observers have spun a series of narratives about the Republican Party's return to power from its 24-month-long exile: the importance of voters' economic fears, the frustration-fueled rise of the tea party movement, and the role of outside money in electing insurgent candidates. • But a key feature of the Nov. 2 "shellacking" has been overlooked: the Republican Party's increasingly strong grip — or stranglehold, one might even say — on the American South. For decades after the end of Reconstruction, the Democratic Party ran the South's public affairs. • But the political world has changed, and last month, the formerly one-party Democratic region continued its evolution into a one-party Republican one, with major implications for redistricting, presidential elections and the polarization of American politics.

After the midterms, the Republican Party now controls 72 percent of U.S. Senate seats in the 11 former Confederate states. Virginia is the contrarian holdout — the only Southern state without at least one Republican senator.

The GOP has been amassing southern U.S. House seats since 1992, and the trend continued apace this year. Twenty-one Republican pickups — roughly one-third of the national total — came from the South, eclipsing even the 16-seat gain in the region during the electoral earthquake of 1994. In all, nearly three-quarters of Southern representatives now call themselves Republicans.

But perhaps the most dramatic — and equally important — changes have happened at the state level. The Republicans now occupy every governor's mansion in the South, save Arkansas and North Carolina. Travel further down the ballot, and things get no better for the Democrats. From governor to secretary of state to adjutant general, the GOP controls 81 percent of Southern statewide elective offices.

In seven states — including Florida — Republicans control every one. This development is remarkable for its scope and swiftness. In 1992, as this year's youngest cohort of voters were entering the world, that same figure was just 17 percent.

Republicans also made significant progress in state legislatures. As a result of the elections and postelection party switches to the GOP, Republicans hold 58 percent of state house seats, and 56 percent of state senate seats. Of the 22 legislative chambers in the region — House and Senate for each of the 11 states — the GOP now controls 16.

These are more than symbolic majorities. The state-level changes mean that the GOP will control the pre-2012 redistricting process in seven Southern states. Why does this matter? Because the latest projections have the South netting seven U.S. House districts through reapportionment — four gained in Texas, two in Florida, one in Georgia, one in South Carolina, and a loss of a seat in Louisiana.

This will make it easier for Republicans to draw districts that increase their party's advantage in Congress. Nonetheless, given the ruthlessly political nature of redistricting, especially when one party controls the process, legal fights are likely.

Florida, where Republicans control the Legislature and governorship, bears special mention. The GOP will undoubtedly try to use its power to create additional Republican legislative and congressional districts despite an almost guaranteed legal challenge. The basis for the expected court fight is the passage of redistricting Amendments 5 (legislative districts) and 6 (congressional districts), successfully advocated by Fair Districts Florida. Their provisions are not only numerous but, in some cases, inherently contradictory. Rest assured, litigation will be plentiful and the Sunshine State could become the site of protracted redistricting-related court battles in the next decennial reapportionment.

In addition to the likelihood of future Republican gains in Congress, the robust growth of the Southern population has consequences for presidential elections. More people equals more House seats, and more House seats equals more votes in the Electoral College. As of 2012, three out of 10 Electoral College votes will come from the South, a generous head start for Republicans, who often sweep the region. Mathematically speaking, the most conservative part of the country will exert more influence in the race for the White House.

The reddening of the American South is also relevant to more than just electoral politics. It is also a source of the polarization that pervades the U.S. Congress today — and will further accentuate it in the next legislative session.

The next Congress will see fewer white Southern Democrats, several of whom lost long-held seats on Nov. 2. Whereas white Southern Democrats once controlled the region's politics, they are now an endangered species. When the next Congress is seated, Rep. John Barrow of Georgia will be the lone white Democrat from the five Deep South states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina).

The exit of these moderate Democrats removes the glue that helped hold the middle together. Compromise in the Congress will be more difficult without them, and their presence will be missed by those who lament the intensification of partisan polarization on Capitol Hill. It's easy to blame President Barack Obama for failing to make good on his promise to usher in a new era of bipartisanship. But changes to the electoral landscape, more than any shortcoming of leadership or communication, are the real reason that polarization persists.

Danny Hayes is an assistant professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University. Seth C. McKee is associate professor of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

GOP's Southern stampede 12/03/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 6, 2010 5:56pm]

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