MAXWELL: The South’s growth is good for GOP

1/17/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



That kind of travel made you conscious of borders; you rode ready for them. Crossing a river, crossing a county line, crossing a state line _ especially crossing the line you couldn’t see but knew was there, between the South and the North _ you could draw a breath and feel the difference.

_ Eudora Welty

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. _ In their publication the State of the South 2000, researchers at MDC Inc., a non-profit organization based in Chapel Hill, paint a picture of a South, a landscape of racial, social and cultural ambivalence, that is changing from the one novelist Welty describes and has become a major player in many areas of American life and abroad.

“Not long ago,” MDC researchers wrote, “you could easily categorize typical Southerners at work: mill hands and farm hands, clerks in the dry-goods stores, and hardworking folks wearing straw hats. Only an elite few went off to college, and then practiced law, managed companies, or engaged in commerce beyond.”

In 2001, we cannot identify the typical Southerner at work because the South’s economy looks like those of other regions. Dixie’s work force is as diverse as that of the nation itself. Even with its myriad race problems and remnants of Jefferson Davis’ esprit, the South (the 11 states of the old Confederacy, along with Kentucky and Oklahoma) is no longer isolated but is woven into the mainstream.

During the fifth meeting of the Southern Journalists Roundtable at the University of North Carolina, this good news was brought into sharp relief with another Southern development that most average Americans have not followed: During the last several years, Southerners have virtually ruled the Beltway and have set much of the nation’s political and social agenda. And do not forget that one member of the Supreme Court’s powerful conservative wing, Clarence Thomas, is Georgia-born.

Nowhere, except in sports, has the South’s power manifested itself more than in the 2000 presidential election. The South elected George W. Bush the 43rd president. (And, by the way, along with Bush’s election, Southerners remain in firm control of many powerful congressional committees.)

The electoral map shows that Vice President Al Gore won a majority in every region except the South, the core of conservatism where a flag still can make or break a governor. Bush enjoyed a whopping 163-to-0 victory here. Sixty percent of Bush’s electoral votes came from below the Mason-Dixon Line. And, remember, Gore even lost the electoral battle in his beloved Tennessee.

Political expert Rhodes Cook, author of the highly regarded Rhodes Cook Letter, states that the South is the only region where Republicans collected a majority of electors in any election since the party last took the White House in 1988, when George W.’s dad won in most regions.

Cook shows, however, that the younger Bush’s victory was different from that of his father in at least one significant way: The elder Bush’s 1988 sweep of electoral votes outside the South occurred after the GOP had held the White House for six administrations from 1968 through 1988. Since then, the GOP has bombed out in other regions.

The electoral map crystalizes, moreover, the partisan nature of presidential politics and the South’s emerging influence for Republicans. Cook: “In the last three presidential contests (1992 through 2000), the GOP has been trampled by a cumulative 372-to-9 count in the Northeast, a 270-to-87 margin in the West, and a 268-to-119 tally in the Midwest _ an aggregate three-election total outside the South of 910 electoral votes for the Democrats, 215 for the Republicans.

“The South, though, has become a reliable Republican redoubt. Its tally has been 383-to-106 Republican in the last three elections, and it was wall-to-wall GOP in two presidential elections prior to that (1984 and 1988).”

A major question for the Southern strategists should be this: Will the rest of the nation continue to let itself be ruled by the likes of Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay _ and now another Bush _ in a post-Cold War world?

Indeed, Bill Clinton and Gore are Southerners, but they embody the liberal sentiments that appeal to important electoral regions outside the South, especially in the Northeast and California, where a huge cache of electors can decide who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Liberal Democrats should worry that congressional reapportionment is based on the most recent United States Census. The South _ with significant population increases _ gained the most seats. Its meaning? More electoral votes for the GOP.