The Take

Weekend events point to promise, peril of GOP's reliance on South

By Dan Balz
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; 4:38 PM

Is the South the linchpin of the Republican Party or its Achilles' heel?

That question is on the table after the past weekend, in which the Southern Republican Leadership Conference drew a record crowd and a slew of party leaders and prospective presidential candidates to its gathering in New Orleans and a furor over the role of slavery in America gathered steam, thanks to the statements of two southern Republican governors.

Over the past two decades, the South has been both the conservative stronghold that helped give Republicans their first congressional majorities in 40 years and, more recently, a conservative enclave in a shrunken party that has been pushed further and further to the political right.

Republicans are currently enjoying a resurgence nationally, thanks to unrest triggered by high unemployment, a backlash against President Obama's domestic agenda and revulsion toward incumbents in Washington. Looking ahead to November, the party anticipates significant gains in the House and Senate. All looks rosy to the GOP.

But in the same way that cultural, coastal liberalism has challenged Democrats in their efforts to win and hold the White House, Republicans must continue to grapple with how to take the best of the South without succumbing to the idea that that region, more than any other, speaks for the whole country.

Clarke Reed, who for many years was the national committeeman from Mississippi, put it well over the weekend when I asked him how the Republican Party should deal with the fact that the South is such a dominant force within the party. "We just need to be cool," he said. "Don't go around singing 'Dixie.' "

That's exactly what has happened recently, however. Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell kicked off the controversy when he failed to mention slavery in his declaration of April as Confederate History Month in the commonwealth. He quickly apologized, but the damage was done.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is normally sure-footed as a politician, compounded the problem in a weekend interview with CNN when he dismissed the uproar over McDonnell's declaration as something that "doesn't amount to diddly."

Barbour, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, sought to play down the issue by pointing to the fact that his own legislature, controlled by Democrats, has routinely passed similar declarations and said no one has to be told that slavery was bad.

But Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, was sharply critical of the comment. "I don't know that there's a more stark example of one party looking to the past and another one looking to the future," he said. "I'd say that having a party leader who says that slavery doesn't matter for diddly -- I'm not sure that's the way to build a national party."

The South's significance to the Republican Party is difficult to overstate. Today, 19 of the 41 Senate Republicans are from the South -- defined as the 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Oklahoma and Kentucky. In those 13 states, Republicans hold 19 of the possible 26 Senate seats.

Their strength in the House is equally dominant. Today southerners account for 80 of the 177 seats Republicans hold in the House, roughly 45 percent of the total. More significantly, the GOP share of seats outside the South is near historical lows.

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