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.
As the party's losses mounted in 2006 and 2008, the power of the South inside the party increased. The day before he defended McDonnell and waded incautiously into the issue of slavery and the Confederacy, Barbour was asked whether he worried that his party was too dominated by or dependent on the South.
"It's to the disadvantage of either party if it's viewed as a regional party," he said. "That's why it's critical that both parties be able to compete everywhere in the country. Democrats got to a place where they had a hard time competing in the South. In '06 and '08, except for governors, we've had a hard time competing in New England."
Mary Matalin, the Republican strategist, former Bush administration official and transplanted southerner, told the audience in New Orleans that the South is now the anchor of the Republican Party, not an albatross, as she said some opponents have suggested. "The southern thing is the American thing," she said.
But the South remains more conservative and, in some ways, more opposed to the president and his agenda than are other parts of the country.
Jennifer Agiesta, The Post's polling analyst, pulled some figures from the newspaper's most recent national poll, which underscores the South's standing as the leading edge of opposition to Obama. All figures cited are among white Americans.
The president's approval rating is lowest in the South, at 39 percent -- significantly lower than the Northeast or Midwest and slightly lower than the West, where it stands at 44 percent. Forty-nine percent of white southerners strongly disapprove of the way Obama is handling his job.
The Democratic Party's image is worst in the South, with just 37 percent of southerners giving Democrats a favorable rating -- the only region where the party's image is below 40 percent.
In contrast, the South is the only region where a majority of whites gives the Republican Party a positive rating. Fifty-two percent of southerners said they have a favorable view of the GOP, compared to 46 percent in the Northeast, 43 percent in the West and 37 percent in the Midwest.
Almost half (49 percent) of whites in the South call themselves conservative. That compares with 42 percent in the Midwest, 38 percent in the West and 33 percent in the Northeast.
On health care, the South and West compete as the regions most opposed to the president's new plan, both by significantly greater margins than the Midwest and Northeast.
Matalin predicted that the South would lead the country in a rejection of Obama's agenda and his presidency. "There is no call [in the South] for fundamental transformation," she said. "Just a clarion call . . . anchored in the South and about to explode all over the country of renewal, of revival, of going back to where we came."
Many Republicans agree with that assessment, that the South now represents the vanguard of a national movement. But if the Republicans learned anything from their victories and defeats of the past decade and a half, it is that, as important as the South is to the party's fortunes, it is not the entire answer to becoming a national party.