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NEWS ANALYSIS

Republican Party divide increasingly a matter of region

As Washington's budget battles show, a divide in the GOP between its Southern base and the rest of country is widening.

January 05, 2013|By Paul West, Washington Bureau
  • Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, angry over congressional delays in approving relief funds after Superstorm Sandy, lashed out at what he called the “toxic internal politics” of his party’s House majority.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, angry over congressional… (Tim Larsen, New Jersey Governor's…)

WASHINGTON — The budget battles rocking the capital have exposed a deepening fault line within an already fractured Republican Party: the divide between the GOP's solid Southern base and the rest of the country.

That regional split became evident when members of the House of Representatives cast votes last week on a budget deal designed to avoid massive tax hikes and spending cuts: Almost 90% of Southern Republicans voted against the "fiscal-cliff" compromise. At the same time, a majority of Republican representatives from outside the South supported the deal, which was approved in large part because of overwhelming Democratic support.

The GOP's geographic schisms burst anew after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) canceled an expected vote on a $60-billion disaster relief package for victims of Superstorm Sandy.

Rep. Peter T. King (R- N.Y.) accused his party of "cavalier disregard" toward New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender, lashed out at what he called the "toxic internal politics" of his party's House majority, noting that Republicans had speedily approved support for storm relief in "Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama …"

Boehner moved quickly to smooth things over, but the upheaval was a reminder that divisions within the party could play an influential role as the new Congress begins to tackle Washington's top agenda items, including an attempt in coming weeks to avoid a national debt default and President Obama's promised effort to overhaul the nation's immigration system.

The image projected by the battles in the House — the only part of the federal government controlled by Republicans — could influence public attitudes toward the GOP and its candidates heading into the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest.

In particular, the South's preeminence could pose challenges to national GOP efforts to broaden the party's appeal on social and cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

"An increasing challenge for Northeastern Republicans, and West Coast Republicans, for that matter, is the growing perception among their constituents that the Republican Party is predominantly a Southern and rural party," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP campaign strategist who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "There's always been a political and cultural disconnect between the South and the rest of the country. But as the parties have sorted themselves out geographically over the last few decades, the size of that gap has increased."

To an unprecedented degree, today's Republican majority in the House is centered in the states of the old Confederacy. The GOP enjoys a 57-seat advantage across the 11-state region that stretches from Texas to Virginia.

Outside the South, however, it's a different story.

As a result of reapportionment and the 2012 election, the GOP no longer controls a majority of non-Southern congressional districts. In the last Congress, Republicans held a slim, two-district majority in non-Southern states; now Democrats have a 24-seat edge. Still, the Republicans have a comfortable 33-seat overall majority in the House — two seats are vacant — and only the most optimistic Democrats believe that Republicans will lose control of the chamber in 2014.

Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor who is an authority on the rise of the Republican Party in the South, said opposition to the fiscal cliff compromise appeared to be concentrated in congressional districts with the highest percentages of conservative voters.

"The Deep South is the most conservative area of the nation," Black noted.

Few would dispute that the battle over the fiscal cliff and internecine sniping over Superstorm Sandy aid left Republicans in Washington deeply divided at a time when the party is still trying to recover from a presidential election defeat that many did not see coming.

"Any time a party loses an election, it goes through a process of internal debate. What the fiscal cliff did was to force that into becoming a little more public than usually happens," said Republican strategist Ed Brookover.

Not everyone in the party agrees that its increasing concentration in the South poses a threat at the ballot box.

"No one in New Hampshire isn't going to vote Republican because our base is in the South," said Dave Carney, a campaign consultant based in New Hampshire whose clients have included Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "I don't think there's a disqualification because a majority of the party members come from below the Mason-Dixon line. What would be an issue is who the candidates will be at the national level and what their message will be."

Yet the South's dominance and internal politics have reinforced the tilt toward sharply conservative views.

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