The Economist can often be good for telling people in the West all sorts of interesting things about Ivory Coast and Bhutan (or, this week, Ethiopia and Somalia!), which is why I still read it, but when it comes to their analysis of American politics and culture I am usually puzzled where they get their information from. Not this time. This time, Lexington (their pseudonymous American politics commentary writer) has fallen in with the rising CW on the future of American politics, according to which the GOP is danger of being restricted to the South. This is deeply wrong for several fairly clear reasons.
First, practically everyone was saying the same thing about Democrats and the Northeast only two years ago and they have been shown to be remarkably wrong. Some offered elaborate theories about “coastal” and “continental” mentalities and cultures that were becoming increasingly mutually exclusive and hostile, and others asked stupid questions about Kansas. Because of Democratic weakness in the South, some Democrats, who look increasingly silly, wanted to write off Dixie all together. Zell Miller anticipated the hysteria, gave up on the Dems entirely and stumped for Bush (no word from James Bowman whether he considers Zell Miller to be unacquainted with Southern ideals of honour).
There is a need to knock down one particularly misleading claim, which Lexington makes here:
The Republicans also suffered big losses in a region that voted solidly for Bush in 2004—the Mountain West. Three Republicans lost house seats. Conrad Burns lost his Senate seat in Montana (59% for Bush in 2004). Democrats now control five of the eight governorships in the region, compared with none in 2000.
Even given the smaller population and limited number of House seats out west, losing three seats in the House and one in the Senate does not really constitute “big losses.” The Republicans remain respectably strong in the Mountain West. They have been weakened a little, but with much gnashing of teeth I would point out that New Mexico’s congressional delegation is still majority Republican after Heather Wilson’s close call. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.
In Colorado, Republicans held on in both CO-05 and CO-04, where they were struggling late, and only lost CO-07 because Beauprez made his disastrous run for governor and was being replaced by a very weak GOP candidate. That means that they would have likely retained their majority of House seats in the CO delegation but for Beauprez’s departure from the House.
The combination of Beauprez’s weak candidacy and the national wave made for a relative blowout in a state that trends Democratic but is by no means out of reach for the GOP. The Montana Senate race was flukey for all kinds of reasons; Tester isn’t exactly your daddy’s wine-and-cheese liberal and ran a credible quasi-libertarian, independent campaign, and, as we all know, Burns was tarred by Abramoff scandals. Wyoming’s At-Large House district was put in jeopardy because Barbara Cubin, the Republican, is an obstreperous buffoon who apparently likes ridiculing the disabled, and Idaho’s 1st (which they held) was put in jeopardy because a great many Republicans who know him think Bill Sali is a horrible human being. The point is that, even with candidates who would and should have lost anywhere else, they held on in these strongly Republican states in spite of themselves.
The great gap in GOP armour this past cycle in the region was Arizona. Two of their three losses in House races came from here. They did not notice Hayworth’s vulnerability until it was far too late, losing them that seat in addition to the loss of Kolbe’s open seat. They have been unable to compete in gubernatorial contests there since Napolitano arrived on the scene, but she may other ambitions than continuing to be governor. However, if the unlikely occurs and McCain becomes the GOP nominee Republicans will run well in Arizona and we will be left wondering why anyone ever thought that the Mountain West was in any jeopardy at all.
Governorships are a bigger concern for the GOP, since they can affect future redistricting, but once Napolitano is gone in Arizona and if Richardson goes off on a doomed quest for the Presidency both of these states will be up for grabs before the next Census. This is just one region that I am a bit more familiar with, and I’m sure locals from other regions in the country could similarly poke a lot of holes in the idea that the GOP has been driven back to its Southern bastion.
What about the “solid South”? In fact, the South was almost as badly (or minimally) affected by anti-Republican sentiment this year as the Mountain West. As in the West, one Senate seat flipped (again, for admittedly completely flukey reasons). In addition, four House seats were lost (two of these being open seats created by scandal) and control of the Arkansas governor’s mansion changed hands. The Republicans very nearly lost the Senate race in Tennessee. If someone wants to judge the party’s long-term prospects by a blowout election like this one, he is welcome to do so, but it will give a very misleading picture of party’s strengths. The Senate race in Tennessee would suggest that the state is beginning to move away from them, when this is not the case. In the same way, anyone who takes the results from Indiana and Ohio as definitive proof of new Democratic strength in the Midwest is ignoring some of the most important reasons for Republican collapse in these states. The collapses were caused directly by the policies or scandals of current governors of those states, and they were made worse by the national environment, but as bad as the outcome was it is not proof that the GOP cannot compete in the Midwest. The one region were there really was disaster was obviously the Northeast, but only time will tell if that purge of Republicans was a function of this election alone or a more general trend.