Far below the radar screen of the mind-numbing competition for the Republican presidential nomination, state legislative elections in Mississippi and Virginia on Nov. 8 will demonstrate if the mighty GOP surge of 2010 has staying power. Coming off their best showing in legislative elections since the 1920s, Republicans have high hopes of winning majorities in the Virginia Senate and the Mississippi House of Representatives. Republicans already hold the governorship and one legislative chamber in these states; a win in either of them would all but complete a historic political turnaround in the once Democratic “Solid South.”
Twenty years ago Republicans did not hold a single Southern legislative chamber. With the wind at their backs after the 2010 elections Republicans now control three-fourths of the legislative chambers in the region — 21 out of 28 — and dominate Southern politics.
In the 11 states of the Old Confederacy that most Americans consider “the deep South,” the transformation is especially striking. Beyond the Virginia Senate and Mississippi House, Southern Democrats command a legislative majority only in Arkansas, where they control both chambers. Democrats are slightly more competitive in the broader Southern region as defined by The Council of State Governments, which adds the border states of Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia to the Confederate 11. Democrats control the Legislature in West Virginia, where earlier this month they clung to the governorship in a special election with a candidate who distanced himself from President Barack Obama. Democrats have a House majority in Kentucky and are favored to win the gubernatorial election in November. Oklahoma, not a state at the time of the Civil War, is thoroughly Republican.
Republican political domination in the South is the product of many factors, including Yankee immigration, the suburbanizing of Southern cities and the inexorable liberal drift of the national Democratic Party. But, as always in this region, race has been the principal driving force of political change.
In the wake of the civil rights revolution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that empowered disenfranchised African Americans, the Democratic Party in the South over time became largely dependent on black votes, while an overwhelming number of whites, particularly in traditionally Democratic rural areas, shifted their allegiance to the GOP.
Lost in the shuffle were moderate white Democrats, only a handful of whom remain in partisan office in the South. To some degree this transformation has been matched by a decline of moderate Republicans in the Northeast, but these developments are not quite symmetrical. Republicans — conservative and moderate alike — have made a comeback in the Northeast, winning the governorships of New Jersey in 2010 and of Maine and Pennsylvania in 2011. In the latter two states and New Hampshire, the GOP controls both legislative houses. A signal Republican achievement of the 2010 elections was winning a majority of the New York Senate, which has given the GOP leverage in the ongoing legislative and congressional redistricting process in the Empire State.
The Republican takeover in the South has provided the region with a louder voice in national politics and tugged the GOP to the right. Some see this as a mixed blessing. Ron Brownstein of National Journal, among others, has suggested that a Republican Party with too much of a Southern accent in its choice of candidates and policies has less chance of winning a national election against Obama. Perhaps, but four of the last six presidents had Southern roots. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential race, has Southerners Herman Cain — ahead in some surveys — and Rick Perry, the Texas governor, nipping at his heels.
In next month’s legislative elections, both parties are looking for clues in Virginia, one of only three Southern states carried by Obama in 2008 and a presumed toss-up in the 2012 presidential election. Republican Bob McDonnell won the governorship in 2009, and the GOP has a hefty majority in the state House of Delegates. Democrats hold a 22-18 margin in the state Senate. McDonnell, who carried 29 of the 40 Senate districts when he was elected, is popular in a state where unemployment is below the national average, and he has raised a ton of money for Republican state Senate candidates.
Republicans face a stiffer climb in Mississippi, where the House has been under Democratic control since the end of Reconstruction. The current Democratic margin is 67-54 with one independent. Republicans hold the state Senate 27-24 with a vacancy. All legislative seats will be decided in the November election.
Redistricting in Mississippi is deadlocked. The two parties could not agree on new maps, and the NAACP filed suit to prevent any elections from being held this year, alleging that none of the proposed maps accurately reflected population changes. A federal court allowed the election to proceed under the old maps, leaving undecided the issue of whether a special election will be ordered in 2012 after redistricting is complete.
Whatever happens in the legislative elections, Mississippi has made history this year by nominating three-term Hattiesburg Democratic Mayor Johnny DuPree for governor, the first time in the state that a major party has put forth an African American for this office. Less because of his race than his party, DuPree is the underdog against the Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who has heavily outspent him.
Because of their victories in the 2010 elections, Republicans made headway in the states this year on targeted issues of collective bargaining, immigration, voter identification and abortion. But Tim Storey, a political analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, believes these policies probably will be subordinated to economic issues in the 2012 elections. Where the GOP gains in 2010 will make a difference in 2012, Storey said, is in giving Republicans an overall advantage in congressional and legislative redistricting based on the 2010 census. In most states, he said, Republicans have avoided overreach and used their majorities to shore up marginal districts already in GOP hands.
A similar assessment comes from David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, who says that in nearly half of all the districts in the House of Representatives, Republicans “have a huge semi-hidden advantage: their ability to shore up the seats they already have.” Currently, Republicans hold a 242-192 House majority (with one vacancy). While redistricting so far has been a wash in terms of the margin, Wasserman wrote in a recent edition of the Cook Report that the strengthening of existing Republican districts means the GOP could lose the congressional popular vote in 2012 and still hold its majority in the House, thereby keeping Rep. John Boehner in the speakership.
Boehner is from Ohio, but it’s his party’s surge in Dixie that has contributed most significantly to the overall Republican advantage. Currently, Republicans stand to gain three of four new congressional districts in Texas, pick up a new district and perhaps an existing one in Georgia, gain from two to four seats in North Carolina and win a presently Democratic seat in South Carolina. These Southern seats come atop prospective Republican gains in Michigan and Missouri and population shifts that could cost the Democrats a seat or two in New York and Ohio.
These Republican gains of eight to 12 seats would roughly offset heavy Democratic advantages in two big states. In California, where a nonpartisan commission is drawing congressional lines for the first time, Democrats stand to pick up two or three seats. In Illinois, where Democrats control both the governor’s office and the Legislature, a new map could eliminate five or six Republican seats.
But in politics, to use the Yogi Berra line, it’s never over until it’s over, and obstacles remain in the path to assured Republican political control. Twenty-three states have yet to complete redistricting and several of the approved plans face court tests; even some Republicans worry that Texas’ redistricting might not pass muster under the Voting Rights Act. In any case, redistricting has its limits: Storey notes that popular or well-heeled candidates have in the past withstood unfavorable changes in district boundaries.
On balance, however, Republicans through their breakthrough in the 2010 midterm elections put themselves in a strong position to control the House and a majority of state legislatures for years to come. The upcoming elections in Virginia and Mississippi will show if the GOP can maintain its momentum.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.