The historic victory of Virginia Republicans last Tuesday in winning majorities of both the Senate and House of Delegates for the first time has major implications for the Old Dominion and for the South. But the GOP's success also reflects more complex developments than might first appear obvious.
For Virginia itself, Republican control of the legislature will certainly enhance the power of Gov. James S. Gilmore III and his party, encouraging government that is more to the liking of the two major wings of Virginia's GOP--the social conservatives and the business community. And when the Virginia legislature goes about drawing new congressional and legislative district lines after the 2000 Census, don't be surprised if the outlook for the GOP becomes significantly brighter.
But there is likely to be a progressive undercurrent to the coming transfer of power in Richmond that will startle many who do not realize how much one-party government prevents change from taking place. This same phenomenon has shown up in other Southern states as well, where true two-party politics is shaking up power structures that have held on for generations.
While the Virginia triumph was the GOP's major bragging point on election night, the takeover is not necessarily a harbinger of things to come in Dixie. Indeed, a look at this year's results in Mississippi and Louisiana, and last year's in Alabama, South Carolina and elsewhere, suggests that the Republican momentum in the South has plateaued, with neither Democrats nor Republicans having a decisive advantage in statewide and congressional elections in 2000 and beyond.
In trying to assess the Republican impact on state government in Virginia and elsewhere in the South, I am reminded that the irony of unintended consequences is not solely a liberal phenomenon. All across the South, from the early 1950s onward, Strom Thurmond clones--I counted myself among them--switched to the GOP to protest the pro-civil rights, anti-capitalist, non-anti-communist opinions that had come to prevail in the Democratic Party of their ancestors. In today's South, however, these old issues are increasingly beside the political point.
Certainly, Southern Republicans do not constitute a right-wing monolith--the GOP emphasis on suburban sprawl in Northern Virginia showed that. And when these conservative GOPers come to power, they often foster changes in state governments that the Goldwaterites and Reaganites who made the revolution never contemplated.
In September, I talked with Gilmore at a Southern Governor's Conference meeting in Memphis about his party's chances for finally taking over both the House and Senate. What excited him about the prospect was not implementation of a Gingrich-like "Contract With Virginia," but the opportunity his party would have to alter the machinery of state government that had helped keep the Democrats in power for so long.
Gilmore cited the late professor V.O. Key's reference to Virginia, in his classic 1949 text "Southern Politics," as a "political museum piece."
"That will change," Gilmore told me.
If Republicans should win the House, Gilmore went on, "we can begin to change some of the systemic things that go back to Reconstruction." He recited a laundry list of archaic provisions: crossover primaries, judges elected in back rooms, the speaker naming minority party members to committees, judges filling vacancies in county offices, a one-term limit for governors. Most of these were put in place by Democrats in the distant past to hinder growth of the GOP, but today they also constitute an affront to the sort of "small-d" democracy that liberals and progressives traditionally champion.
The changes, said Gilmore, "will be historic," though he did add, "I doubt Republicans will change all of them, once they get their hands on them." Candor, as well as spoils, belongs to the victor-to-be.
Gilmore is not the only Southern Republican with an otherwise conservative agenda who wants to shake up the stodgy conservatism of Southern state governments. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told me that he liked term limits for state legislators because they stimulated legislative action. "People know they won't be there that long and don't have long to get things done." Term limits are "opening up some seats--it used to be they [legislators] left in a pine box," said Huckabee.
Southern Republicans in state government also have found that in order to get a goodly portion of their proposals enacted, they have had to streamline government procedures that in the past served conservative--albeit Democratic--purposes. Thus, South Carolina's Carroll Campbell significantly restructured state government during his tenure from 1987 to 1995, strengthening the powers of the governor--usually a "liberal" reform--and simplifying the state's budgetary process.
On some issues, Republican governors have supported unpopular proposals they deemed desirable. In Tennessee, Gov. Don Sundquist, during his first term, acted to prevent legislative passage of an anti-affirmative action initiative. The Republican majority in the South Carolina House also bottled up an anti-affirmative action measure and its former governor, David Beasley, tried--unsuccessfully--to unite the public behind a plan to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol dome.
In addition, two-party cooperation sometimes leads to results that might have been more difficult in the old one-party legislatures. Earlier this year, for example, the South Carolina Senate--which has 25 Democrats and 21 Republicans--passed a hate-crimes bill that included crimes motivated by a victim's sexual orientation, with both the majority and minority leaders supporting the measure. Moreover, the vote was a not-even-close 39 to 5. "I thought I was in Rhode Island," Tony Snell, president of the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement, told me in trying to grasp the Senate's suddenly liberal turn. (The measure failed to pass the GOP-controlled House, however.)
All of this is not to suggest that GOP hegemony in Virginia--or in any Southern state--will usher in an era of liberal reform. After all, in 1996, one of Louisiana Republican Gov. Mike Foster's first acts was to eliminate minority set-asides in the state's college scholarship program. Moreover, when Republicans take power in the South, debates over abortion, controversies over keeping brain-dead patients hooked up to life support, and a host of spending measures are all more likely to reflect the influence of Christian conservatives and/or business than when Democrats keep the reins.
It is well to remember, however, that for reasons not always related to the issues that put them in office, Republicans--unwittingly and otherwise--are helping bring about a new, modernized South.
As impressive as last week's Republican victory in Virginia appears, a look across the rest of the South suggests that Dixie's big switch to the Grand Old Party may be grinding to a halt. Last year, Democrats Don Siegelman in Alabama and Jim Hodges in South Carolina defeated incumbent Republican governors. Democrats also retained the Georgia governorship and replaced North Carolina's Republican senator, Lauch Faircloth, with John Edwards. This year, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi appears to have won the governorship, succeeding Republican Kirk Fordice, who was term-limited.
In Louisiana, whose murky two-party system resembles the salt-and-fresh water mix in its bayous, the Republican Foster was reelected governor with ease--by a winning margin of 62 percent. But because the governor and other statewide officeholders (all but one of whom are Democrats) endorsed each other, Republicans made only one gain--they beat one of the two Democrats under indictment.
In state legislature races, it was hit or miss for both parties. In Mississippi, the Republicans picked up one seat in the state Senate, but the Democrats gained two in the House. In Louisiana, Democrats gained one state senator, the GOP three state representatives.
Even with the change in Virginia factored in, Democrats still control both houses of the legislature in eight Southern states--Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Republicans control both houses only in two--Virginia and Florida. In three others--Kentucky, South Carolina and Texas--each party controls one house. While the GOP will continue to gain in Southern legislatures, the shift is likely to depend mostly on old-style Democrats retiring from conservative districts, which are easier for Republicans to win.
Thus, Virginia notwithstanding, recent elections in the South foretell a highly competitive, two-party region, with neither party starting out as the prohibitive favorite. The Democrats no longer benefit from being a historic, monumental presence in the South, and the Republicans have lost some of the steam that swept them to unprecedented power in the region in recent decades.
Even if Texas Gov. George W. Bush wins the Republican presidential nomination and wins big in the South in next year's election, the Democrats' national campaign is likely to make a major, well-funded effort to maximize turnout among African-American voters, similar to their highly successful 1998 effort. (The architect of that program, incidentally, was Donna Brazile, Al Gore's new campaign manager.) That may not put Virginia or any other Southern state in the Democratic column in 2000. But it is likely to put a major damper on Republican gains at the congressional, state and local levels.
The message from Virginia and the rest of Dixie this year is that neither Republicans nor Democrats can rest on their laurels. The South, at long last, has a genuine two-party system.
Hastings Wyman has published the Southern Political Report, a biweekly newsletter, since 1978.