Tension between the conservative movement and the Republican Party is natural and healthy. Cooperation can be just as healthy, provided conservatives are the ones running the show. Movement conservatives have long envisioned the GOP remade as a client of the political right — the electoral shop of the conservative machine, so to speak. Today, as ever, the Republican Party is described by Agnew’s nattering nabobs as being in a state of “civil war.” (These same media folks have characterized conservatives as neo-confederates, so you’d think they’d have the decorum to use proper Lost Cause nomenclature, and call it a War of Tea Party Aggression.) The fact remains that the GOP needs conservatives, and conservatives need the GOP. As such, conservatives (even those — including yours truly — who take considerable glee in RINO hunting) would do well to pay attention to the state of the Republican Party.
But the media gets it wrong in its treatment of the Republican Party as a monolith, taking “Red State America” to be one uniform swath of Bass Pro Shops and high school football stadiums. They take this same oversimplified approach when documenting the political strength of Republican Party organizations in the states, notably in the South. Based on popular representation, non-Southern political observers would be forgiven for assuming that Texas, Tennessee and the five Deep South states resemble a series of identical Republican fiefdoms.
Let’s take Georgia and South Carolina. Seemingly identical politically (with the exception of Atlanta), both broke for Romney, McCain, Bush and Dole. But under the surface the Republican Party of South Carolina is worlds apart from its trans-Savannah counterpart. I recently did research on the topic, breaking down the history of Republican Party development in each state, comparing the two parties’ paths to power. I also took a look at the future of each party, and found that South Carolina Republicans are in better shape.
Here’s one simple example to illustrate the general point: let’s see what happens when we compare how rapidly a county is growing (relative to other counties) and the share of that county’s vote won by the Republican candidate in the 2010 gubernatorial election. First for the Palmetto State, we see a positive correlation between county population growth and Republican vote share. Three fourths of the counties won by Republican Nikki Haley are in the upper half of South Carolina counties in terms of population growth rate. Democrat Vince Sheheen picked up 73 percent of his county wins from counties on the lower end of population growth. In South Carolina, Republicans garner electoral success by sweeping the affluent, growing, younger urban corridors in the upstate, midlands, and coastal regions. Older, poorer, more African-American counties vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. This bodes well for Republican futures. As the home of urban and exurban whites, the GOP has a compact coalition with minimal cross-cutting cleavages. Haley only prevailed in five of the slow-growing rural counties, and by slim margins. Most importantly, the South Carolina Republican base is a dependable majority.
Georgia, it so happens, is another animal altogether. Roy Barnes, the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, performed similarly to Sheheen, garnering 72 percent of his county wins in slow-growing counties. Republican Nathan Deal won a whopping 116 of Georgia’s 159 counties (why does Georgia have so many darn counties? This Carolinian has no idea). But a full 43 percent of those counties were on the lower end of population growth in the recent census. Georgia Republicans have much more rural support than their South Carolina counterparts. How much is this worth as the rural population of Georgia ages and whites dwindle as a share of the Georgia population? It is worth a few more statewide wins, but just how many remains in doubt. Atlanta dominates Peach State politics, and Atlanta is becoming bluer as Republicans who long ago moved into the “old” suburbs now move even further out. Atlanta politics mean that the Democrats have a much more solid base of support in Georgia. While those Democrat-dominated urban counties are perhaps not growing at a tremendous clip, they are stable and reliable. Outside of a few pockets of Columbia, South Carolina Democrats have no corresponding urban base of core support. And while the GOP’s latest wins in Georgia have been imposing, it is not too much of a stretch to say that both their suburban and rural bases of support are waning in importance. Wealthy Atlanta exurbs and the declining white population of rural south and mountain Georgia may not carry the day for long.
South Carolina Republicans carry out RINO hunts with gusto (even the state GOP pitches in). Meanwhile, Georgia Republicans nominate Nathan Deal, an unremarkable Republican congressman who was a Democrat as recently as 1994. The South Carolina GOP resembles a New South-style business-minded party with a strong conservative streak and an urban and suburban base. Georgia’s Republicans more closely resemble the old Southern Democrats who they only recently replaced. Why are the two parties different? The answer is complicated, but it primarily has to do with the history of party development in each state.
More on that next time.
—John Henry Thompson is Manager of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE
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