In the South, the GOP Is A-OK with Being the White People Party

We've been talking quite a bit about the split between House Republicans—safe in their own districts and opposed to immigration reform—and elite/establishment/national Republicans, worried about how the GOP will fare if it can't reach out to growing minority voting groups. But there's another group of Republicans that hasn't gotten as much attention, one that really makes up the anchor of the party: the Republicans who control state legislatures and governorships, particularly in the South. While we in Washington have been talking about the GOP's dire straits, things are very different down there. If you're a Republican in North Carolina, for instance, you aren't spending time worrying about the GOP's standing among Latinos. You're too busy running amok, fulfilling the legislative fantasies you've had for years, because now you control the legislature and the governor's office. These are the boom times.

The other day, Thomas Esdell wrote a post talking about the decline of black power in the South that has gone along with the solidification of Republican control there. It isn't that there are fewer black legislators in the South than there were 20 years ago; actually, there are more. But whereas most of them used to be in the majority party in their legislatures, now nearly all of them—298 out of 313—are in the minority. It's little exaggeration to say that Republicans in the South would be happy if every elected Democrat in their state was a black Democrat, and they've done everything in their power to make that happen:

Republicans in control of redistricting have two goals: the defeat of white Democrats, and the creation of safe districts for Republicans. They have achieved both of these goals by increasing the number of districts likely to elect an African-American. Black voters are gerrymandered out of districts represented by whites of both parties, making the Democratic incumbent weaker and the Republican incumbent stronger...

Where possible, Republican redistricting strategists have reduced the number of blacks in white Democratic legislative districts in order to render the incumbent vulnerable to Republican challenge. In other areas of the state, where it has not been not possible to "bleach" a district, Republicans have sharply increased the percentage of blacks to over 50 percent in order to encourage a successful black challenge to the white Democratic incumbent.

In private discussions, Republicans in the South talk explicitly about their goal of turning the Democratic Party into a black party, and in many Southern states they have succeeded. African-American legislators make up the majority of state House and Senate Democratic caucuses in most of the Southern states.

This isn't equally easy in every state, but in some places in the South, the proportion of white Republicans has grown so high that once they can segregate the black voters (so to speak), it doesn't just mean they're no longer vulnerable to Democratic challengers on an individual basis, it also means their hold on power in the state as a whole is virtually assured. To give you an idea of how Republican the white vote in the South is, I've made this chart showing the white vote for the Republican ticket in 2008 (I couldn't use 2012 because exit polls were only conducted in about half the states, but the ones we have show that the white vote was very similar in both elections):

In many places, and in the nation as a whole, the idea that the GOP could become (or stick to being) a nearly completely white party is very bad for Republicans. Consider that nationally, John McCain got 55 percent of the white vote, and Mitt Romney did slightly better, getting 59 percent. It wasn't enough for either of them to win. But if you're a Republican in, say, Alabama, where nearly nine out of ten whites vote Republican, you don't need a single vote from non-whites. An all-white party is just fine with you.

As our terrific state reporter Abby Rapoport has explained, for all the talk about polarization in Congress, polarization is even more extreme at the state level. And if you want to know what happens when Republicans get control, look at North Carolina. In 2010, Republicans finally won control of both houses of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and in 2012 a Republican was elected governor. In the time since they've gone on a rampage, cutting unemployment benefits, Medicaid, education funding, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and basically anything that might help poor people. Now that the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, they'll be moving to impose voter-ID requirements, as well as things like eliminating early voting on Sundays, because black churches often encourage people to go vote after church. And of course, they're trying to make it all but impossible for women to get abortions.

Those Republican legislators aren't fretting about their party's future. They're too busy with the present, which for them is a dream come true.

You may also like