The Bubba Vote

You might as well buy this book now, because it’s already required reading at the Bush White House and the Democratic National Committee. Or at least it should be.

Everything you need to know about Election 2002 is in Earl and Merle Black’s new book, The Rise of Southern Republicans. Forget issues. Forget national polling data on generic party comparisons. Forget the final grotesque lunging for soft-money donations.

Election 2002 is about control of the House and Senate and, by extension, the future of the Bush agenda and prospects for Bush’s reelection in 2004. And the path to majority power runs through the Old Confederacy. Five Senate seats are up for grabs there; if Democrats have any chance of winning back the House, they must take back from Republicans the seats lost in the 1994 Gingrich Revolution and win seats added through redistricting.

And as the Black brothers explain in exhausting detail (with more logrithmic graphs than my high school trigonometry text), Democrats have a fighting chance in Senate seats and very dim prospects when it comes to defeating Republicans or winning open seats born of redistricting.

When it comes to winning House races, Democrats must win in majority white districts where the cultural, economic and political trends favor Republicans. The Gingrich Revolution set these trends in motion. In 1994 Republicans won a majority of House seats in the South for the first time since 1874. The narrow, three-seat margin ballooned to 17 seats in 1996 even as the party lost seats overall. The 17-seat Southern advantage has, from the eyes of national Democrats, persisted stubbornly ever since.

“In 2001 the Republican party’s fragile control of the House of Representatives thus rested entirely on the realignment of the region historically most hostile to the Republican Party.”

In Senate races, Democrats can and have relied heavily upon strong black voter turnout to compensate for massive white defections to the GOP—defections that have demolished what used to be an impenetrable Democratic stranglehold on the region.

As the Black brothers explain, the basic Democratic formula for survival in Senate races is economic conservatism matched with strong civil rights credentials. Put more bluntly: Bush tax cut = Yes. Charles Pickering = No. This formula has kept Democrats competitive in Senate races because massive black turnout can and often has determined the Democrats’ fate (just ask Wyche Fowler, victimized by low black turnout in 1992, and Ernest Hollings, who won in 1998 with 90 percent of a heavy black turnout and only 39 percent of the white vote).

The rise of southern Republicans is one of the most consequential stories in modern American politics. For political reporters of a certain generation (read under 50), the Democratic dominance of Southern congressional politics is barely understood. The Black brothers make it all very clear.

Southern Republicans won only seven of 2,434 congressional elections during the first half of the 20th century. Matters were even worse for Southern Republicans with senatorial ambitions. The last Republican senator was Jeter Pritchard, who had been chosen by the North Carolina legislature in 1895. After Pritchard’s term expired in 1903, every southern senator had been a Democrat.

The seeds of Democratic dominance were sown during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Southern whites hated the party of Lincoln for abolishing slavery and humiliating them during Reconstruction. Southern Democrats came to Washington with one overarching goal: maintain segregation at all costs. Southerners rose to power through seniority and used all parliamentary powers to kill civil rights legislation for nearly a century.

As the Black brothers explain: “Before the Senate adopted a cloture rule in 1917, southern Democrats could use the tradition of unlimited debate to force the withdrawal of any legislation that challenged the region’s institutions of white supremacy. Between 1917 and 1964 cloture had never been invoked on behalf of civil rights legislation.”

The Democrats’ stranglehold on the South began to loosen after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And the Blacks argue it was Barry Goldwater, and not Richard Nixon, who established the first GOP beachhead in the South—by opposing federal civil rights legislation. Since then, the Black brothers show, more whites have voted Republican than Democratic in every single presidential election.

Nixon and Ronald Reagan built huge southern presidential majorities, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that Republicans translated presidential party identification to congressional party identification. The Reagan years, they argue, gave Republicanism newfound legitimacy.

With that legitimacy came a grassroots network of Republican operatives who built statewide organizations committed to lower taxes, strong defense, smaller government, and conservative cultural values.

The spread of state GOP organizations, note the Blacks, was also accelerated by the mobilization of evangelical Christians, who also gravitated to the GOP. Southern Republicanism has produced a solidly southern GOP congressional leadership—a dynamic the Black brothers contend will last as long as the party retains its southern congressional majority.

The result, they suggest, will be legislation tailored to white voters of various income levels throughout rural and suburban southern districts. These voters, the Black brothers contend, form the core of the new Republican southern majority. As such, they are vital to continued GOP control of the House and pivotal in both parties’ pursuit of a Senate majority this year. Big GOP Senate gains in 1980 and 1994 coincided with high southern white turnout, just as big GOP setbacks in 1986 and 2000 coincided with lower white turnout and high black turnout.

In additional to analyzing regional trends in the South, the Black brothers dissect trends in key southern states, reviewing key House and Senate races since Republicans began aggressively contesting races in the South in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It is in this analysis of discrete voting trends throughout the South that top GOP and Democratic strategists might find keys to House and Senate victories in 2002.

The book’s conclusion says it all: “Rising congressional Republicanism in the oldest regional stronghold of the Democratic Party has reshaped the Republicans into a truly national party for the first time since Reconstruction. Not since Whigs fought Democrats in the 1830s and 1840s has American politics been based on a thoroughly nationalized two-party system. Because leaders in both parties can easily see ways to win or lose their House and Senate majorities, the national stakes of each election cycle are permanently high.”

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