Gone With the Vote

For the GOP in the South, Re-construction isn't quite over.


The Rise of Southern Republicans, by Earl Black and Merle Black, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 442 pages, $29.95

For supporters of limited government, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) was an ideal candidate. Running in 1998 for the U. S. Senate, he scorned the idea that lawmakers should scrounge federal pork for their constituents. He actually voted against projects meant to benefit his home district, and he promised to take the same approach in the upper chamber.

His opponent was incumbent Democrat Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, who dealt with pork the same way the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart dealt with illicit sex—seeking it as vigorously as he damned it. The only difference was that Hollings had no shame.

Inglis tried to say that Hollings' approach was out of date. "In 1966 [the year Hollings first won the seat], we sent senators to Washington to get whatever they could because we were desperately poor," Inglis said. But the prosperous South Carolina of the 1990s, he insisted, no longer needed government guarantees. "The senator is selling day-old bread, and we're not going to buy it." Alas, South Carolinians find their day-old bread quite filling. They re-elected Hollings, 53 percent to 46 percent.

Earl and Merle Black, twin brothers who teach at Rice and Emory universities, offer this case study in The Rise of Southern Republicans, the latest in a series of books, including The Vital South and Politics and Society in the South, that have established them as leading experts on Southern politics. Inglis' story exemplifies their broader analysis.

On one hand, Inglis' success shows how far the GOP has come. During the 1950s, a Republican could not win a House seat in most of the South (the 11 states of the Confederacy), much less score 46 percent against a veteran Democratic senator.

On the other hand, the Hollings victory is a reminder that Republicans have not gained the overwhelming dominance that Democrats once enjoyed. Throughout the region, statewide elections remain competitive. The GOP's century of impotence in the South following the Civil War was caused by race; and racial questions, as the Black brothers show, are still a regrettably dominant concern in Dixie politics.

This richly documented book does a good job of explaining both the Republicans' surge and the Democrats' survival. For decades after the Civil War, American politics exhibited a pattern that the Black brothers dub "battlefield sectionalism." The party of Lincoln did well in the North but was anathema below the Mason-Dixon line. In the 1930s, Republicans suffered on both sides of the line. The Depression cost them much of their support in the North while deepening anti-GOP feeling in the South.

Moreover, the Democrats' New Deal had a special appeal for the region. "Millions of dollars helped to construct dams, reservoirs, harbors, highways and airports," the Blacks write. "Federal money was political magic, a regional free lunch. It cost the South little because most southerners did not earn enough money to pay federal income taxes."

Two big changes followed World War II. First, the South's economic and demographic profile began to resemble that of the rest of the country. The Thomas Wolfe South of small-town eccentrics morphed into the Tom Wolfe South of urban bankers. Houston came to look like Los Angeles, even down to the urine-colored air. Northerners and Midwesterners moved south, bringing their GOP voting habits with them. And because of their rising incomes, Southerners now felt the tax bite they had escaped during the Depression.

The second big change, of course, involved civil rights. By integrating the armed forces and backing civil rights legislation, the Black brothers explain, President Harry Truman "undercut 'an unwritten understanding' between the northern and southern wings of the Democratic party." The "Solid South" cracked. Democrats lost some of the region's electoral votes to Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond in 1948, then to Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in the next three elections.

Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) sped up this change when he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Later that year as the Republican presidential nominee, he carried five states of the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) while losing every other state except Arizona. "Some whites who had been trained from childhood to hate Republicans and revere Democrats now saw in the Goldwater wing of the Republican party an alternative to the Democratic party," the Black brothers write. From then on, Southern whites would always give a plurality of their votes to Republican presidential candidates.

The Blacks make clear that it wasn't just about race. White Southerners liked the GOP's position on taxes and defense as well. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan also drew religious right voters in the South with his positions on social issues such as abortion and school prayer.

This new Southern support for the Republicans did not immediately extend below presidential races. In the House and Senate, many conservative Democrats clung to their seats like moss, greatly slowing the realignment at the congressional level. Finally in the 1990s, the GOP won a majority of the region's House seats. The 2002 midterm election confirmed the shift. Most of the region's governors, senators, and House members are now Republicans. Though Democrats still lead in Southern state legislatures, the GOP scored historic gains, taking the Georgia Senate and Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction.

The effect of civil rights on Republican electoral prospects in the South was a double-edged sword. While civil rights drove some Southern whites to the GOP, it also enabled many Southern African Americans to vote—and they voted almost unanimously for Democrats. In one of history's delicious ironies, African Americans, freed by the actions of the first Republican president, eventually became the Democratic Party's core vote throughout much of the South.

Still, no Southern state has an African-American majority, and not one has elected an African-American senator. The situation is different in House races. African-American Democrats can win in majority or near-majority African-American districts, which are largely the product of the Voting Rights Act. But by packing African Americans into majority-minority districts, the act also left neighboring districts whiter and more Republican, a process that cynics call "bleaching."

As a result, Southern Republicans can prevail either when African Americans make up a small share of the electorate or when Republican candidates win an overwhelming majority of the white vote. The first condition applies in many House races but not in Senate races. Most Southern GOP senators win because of huge white majorities. In 2000 Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott lost the African-American vote 87 percent to 11 percent but won re-election by carrying 88 percent of the white vote.

Such huge majorities are hard to achieve against a Democrat who can reach beyond African Americans. Many Southern Democratic politicians have learned the trick of building biracial coalitions, which is why they aren't extinct. For instance, Hollings beat Inglis by combining 90 percent of a high black turnout with 39 percent of whites.

Knowing that a tough Democratic challenge might lurk around the next corner, conservative Republican senators resort to shoring up their support by playing the pork game that Hollings has mastered. Even Phil Gramm, a rhetorically staunch free market economist, was never shy about claiming credit for the booty he brought home to Texas. By contrast, Sen. Mack Mattingly of Georgia largely ignored local concerns in favor of high-minded issues such as the line-item veto. He lasted one term.

The Black brothers make their points about the state of Southern Republicans with a wealth of data from elections and public opinion surveys. Though the book's elaborate details might make slow going for many readers, it will serve as a valuable resource for scholars and political activists.

Nevertheless, the book has its lapses. The Black brothers refer to the Republican Party of the Civil War era as "deliberately founded on sectional rather than national interests." Though it is true that the Republicans of the time had no appeal in the South, it is downright weird to refer to the limitation of slavery as a "sectional interest."

More significantly, the authors fail to develop a major implication of their own analysis. Mobilizing the African-American vote is now a key element of Democratic strategy, especially in statewide races. A common tactic is to demonize Republicans as racists, citing their opposition to racial preferences.

In 1999 Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced his One Florida initiative to end racial preferences in government contracts and state university admissions. The initiative pre-empted a stronger measure that national anti-preference activist Ward Connerly was seeking to put on Florida's ballot. Republicans feared the Connerly measure would stoke strong opposition and hurt their party. As it turned out, Bush's One Florida hurt them anyway. Democrats used it to inspire anger among African-American voters, who turned out in high numbers and nearly tipped the state to Al Gore in 2000.

Even before this incident, Republicans in the South (and elsewhere) had grown increasingly gun-shy on the preference issue. Last June, Gov. Bush signed a bill creating the Florida Minority Business Loan Mobilization Program, which Connerly denounced as a new racial preference that backtracked from One Florida.

A half-century ago, Southern Democrats campaigned by opposing color-blind laws, stirring up racial fears, and silencing those who opposed them. They still do.