The race to replace Eric Cantor as House Majority Leader is turning out to be not much of a race after all, as current Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy is cruising to an easy win over Tea Party favorite Raul Labrador. Not all Republicans are happy about McCarthy becoming majority leader, since he’s less conservative than the man he is replacing in a party that is still shifting steadily to the right.
But there’s a more pointed matter of representation being raised: the lack of Southerners in the House leadership.
It’s coming into play in the race for McCarthy’s current position as whip, where Louisiana’s Steve Scalise is facing off against Peter Roskam of Illinois and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana. Some members from the South argue that the region that forms the Republican party’s base ought to be represented in the leadership of the house of Congress that the Republican party holds.
They have a pretty good case to make. The GOP’s center of gravity is now most assuredly in the South. If we consider the South as the 11 states of the Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky, members from those states make up 106 of the party’s 234 members of the House (its other area of strength is the Midwest). One hundred and thirty-three of the 206 electoral votes Mitt Romney won — or 65 percent — came from those states. And in the Deep South in particular we see the most intensely Republican areas, where as many as nine out of ten white voters casts their ballot for Republicans.
Given that, it’s at least a little surprising that the top two spots in the House leadership are held by representatives from Ohio and California. It wasn’t always this way. In the mid-1990s, almost the entire Republican congressional leadership was Southern. Newt Gingrich of Georgia was the Speaker, and Dick Armey and Tom Delay of Texas were Majority Leader and Whip. Senate Republicans were led by Trent Lott of Mississippi, with Don Nickles of Oklahoma serving as whip.
The GOP of today is even more reliant on the South than it was then, as the realignment that began with the civil rights movement of the 1960s — which sent conservative Southern Democrats into their new ideological home in the Republican party — is now all but complete. After Republicans took over the Virginia state Senate two weeks ago, they control the legislature in all 11 former Confederate states for only the second time since Reconstruction. While control in the closely divided state of Virginia could certainly swing back, the Republican entrenchment in the South is undisputed.
The home states of congressional leaders may not have much practical impact, but it has symbolic importance. And there’s a quandary for Republicans, in the fact that many people — including independent voters — in other parts of the country hold some stereotypes and negative impressions of the South. Southerners argue that those beliefs are unfair (quick tip, though: it wouldn’t hurt if you just let go of the Confederate Flag), but whether they are or they aren’t, their existence is undeniable. So there’s some political risk, even if it may be minor, in having prominent spokespeople with Southern drawls representing your party in the national media.
Everyone should of course be judged as an individual, and for all I know, Steve Scalise could win the whip race and turn out to be the best advocate the GOP ever had (not that the majority whip is the first person the media turn to for the party line, but still). At the same time though, Republicans must know that putting a Southern face on their substantially Southern party reinforces some of the biggest challenges they face on a national level, as an extremely conservative, almost entirely white party in a country that is growing more racially diverse and progressive on social issues.
They may get caught in a vicious cycle, where the less diverse their party is, the more central the South becomes to holding on to what power they have, and the more central the South is, the more the rest of the country sees them as just a regional party.