Are right-wing Southerners turning the beleaguered GOP into a permanent political minority? When one Republican office holder, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, said as much the other day, some Dixie-cans reacted as though they’d seen a ghost—the grim apparition of another Buckeye, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Yet the evidence suggests that Voinovich might have a point.
“It was a gaffe as defined in Washington—which is ‘a politician speaking the truth,’” says political science professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, in the heart of the Old Confederacy. “If your party becomes defined too heavily by a single region of the country, that’s a problem.”
The Republican Party, says Joe Scarborough, “is culturally disconnected from New England, from the Midwest, and from the Pacific Northwest.”
Republican congressman-turned-television host Joe Scarborough—a native Alabaman who represented Pensacola, Florida for three terms in the 1990s—notes that for at least the past 20 years, the GOP has fought and often won national campaigns by stressing cultural and social wedge issues that are still red meat in the South but damaged goods almost everywhere else. The divisive tactics date back even earlier, to Richard Nixon’s vaunted “Southern Strategy” of 1968, which appealed to Southern whites, especially Democrats and Independents, who resented and feared the social turmoil of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. But that, Scarborough points out, “is a 50.1 percent strategy” that tends to succeed, if at all, on the margins.
“Forget ideology,” Scarborough says. “If you were an independent that’s not overly ideological in New Hampshire or Maine, are you going to really be attracted to a party whose leaders have been George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove and Lee Atwater? Culturally, no! It’s a party of Texas, it’s a party of Georgia. It’s a party that is culturally disconnected from New England, from the Midwest, and from the Pacific Northwest.”
Senator Voinovich made much the same argument, albeit more earthily. "We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns,” he complained to the Columbus Dispatch, calling out his colleagues from South Carolina and Oklahoma when asked what the Republican Party’s biggest problems are. “It’s the Southerners. They get on TV and go 'errrr, errrrr.' People hear them and say, ‘These people, they’re Southerners. The party’s being taken over by Southerners. What the hell [have] they got to do with Ohio?’"
It was, by clubbable Senate standards, a rare and bracing insult (of the sort that, in an earlier century, might have provoked a vicious public caning). Perhaps Voinovich felt free to be undiplomatic because he’s not running for reelection when his current term ends next year.
Among those who rushed to defend the South’s impugned honor was Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who returned Voinovich’s volley by calling him “a moderate, really wishy-washy”—a pretty low blow. Vitter went on: "I'm on the side of conservatives getting back to core conservative values. There are a lot of us from the South who hold those values, which I think the party is supposed to be about. We strayed from them in the past few years, and that's why we performed so badly in the national elections." (To be sure, few have strayed more conspicuously than Senator Vitter, who in 2007 confessed “serious sin”—with his anguished wife standing camera-ready beside him—after being publicly outed as a satisfied customer of the D.C. Madam.)
The confirmation hearings of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor—in which Senator Coburn of Oklahoma did his Ricky Ricardo impression (telling history’s first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee she had “a lot of ‘splaining to do”) and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions led the charge on behalf of affirmatively acted-upon white males—betrayed a certain Republican alienation from the political zeitgeist.
More recently, a public opinion poll sponsored by the left-leaning Daily Kos Web site gave the GOP even further cause for concern. The results suggest an alarming Republican consanguinity with the anti-Obama birther conspiracy theorists.
While 77 percent of Americans as a whole said they believe President Barack Obama was born in the United States, only 42 percent of self-identified Republicans share that belief. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans said Obama is not a natural-born citizen (never mind the uncontradicted facts of the matter) and 30 percent weren’t sure. It appears the lion’s share of those doubting Republicans reside in the South, where only 47 percent of the respondents accept the nation’s first African American president as legitimate (meaning that 53 just don’t or aren’t sure), compared with 93 percent in the Northeast, 90 percent in the Midwest and 87 percent in the West who believe Obama meets the constitutional requirement. Never mind disconnect, this is practically a secession.
Scarborough—whose compelling book, The Last Best Hope, offers a roadmap to Republican restoration—argues that as long as the GOP brand is tarnished by cultural and regional isolation, Republicans will find it extremely difficult to win back their traditional strongholds in New England and the Midwest. He includes himself among the sort of Southern conservatives who don’t play well outside Dixie (though the ratings success of his Morning Joe program on MSNBC probably belies that assertion).
Professor Sabato, meanwhile, sees another consequence of the Dixie dislocation, “It will be many years before another Texan is elected president,” he says. “I really believe that people have had their fill of the Texas swagger and the attitude that are very much identified with George W. Bush’s presidency.”
Small Southern comfort.
Lloyd Grove is Editor at Large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.