Is the South Too Republican for Republicans?
The year before his 2010 retirement from the Senate, Ohio Republican George Voinovich offered one of the more candid and colorful recent assessments of what had happened to his party. Asked by The Columbus Dispatch what his party’s biggest problem was, he answered: “We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns. It’s the southerners. They get on TV and go ‘errrr, errrrr.’ People hear them and say, ‘These people, they’re southerners. The party’s being taken over by southerners. What they hell they got to do with Ohio?’”
Granted, a year after he said this, the Republican wave made the party look a little less regionally boxed-in—a Republican (Rob Portman) won Voinovich’s seat, a Republican (John Kasich) became governor of Ohio, and another Ohioan, John Boehner, became Speaker of the House. Still, Voinovich’s broader point was right on—the profile of today’s GOP is inextricably linked with the party’s rise to dominance in the South. The party’s Southernness helps explain its potent mix of evangelism, strong support for the military and visceral opposition to taxes and social programs. It also helps explain its striking racial homogeneity, a feature that is causing no end of concern for party strategists like Karl Rove.
But it also raises a question regarding today’s Republican primaries in Alabama and Mississsippi: If this year’s GOP presidential candidates have all year been making such a conservative pitch in order to appeal to a party shaped by the South, why have they been having such a hard time connecting with voters in the most Southern states of all? I was unable to cover these two primaries—too bad, because I know from prior visits that early spring’s a fine time to be in that corner of the country. But from the coverage on the ground, one gets the sense that voters in the two states have not known what to make of these candidates, despite the fact that their stump speeches have, it would seem, been tailor-made for them. In Monday’s Washington Post, David Fahrenthold and Krissah Thompson reported:
It sounded like a perfect match, red meat for red states. But, instead, everybody seemed a little uncomfortable. At rallies in Mississippi and Alabama, which hold primaries Tuesday, the candidates awkwardly fished for something they might have in common with Southern audiences. Newt Gingrich talked about gun racks but got his facts wrong. Mitt Romney announced, “I like grits.” Rick Santorum tried to describe a connection to Alabama but admitted he was not a frequent visitor. [The connection was his citation of the old quip about his home state, Pennsylvania, being Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.]
In small towns, many voters said they had noticed a cultural disconnect between themselves and the three East Coast-based candidates vying to lead their party. The candidates talked about conservative values, of course.
But, to people in pine-woods towns, it didn’t seem like they were living them out in the same way. “Southern people are conservative by need. You know, if you lived in the South 40 years ago, you’d know what I’m talking about,” said Donald Crocker, who has cut hair in tiny Leakesville since 1966. He meant that Southerners had learned to live poor, relying on their churches and their neighbors and not expecting government help. Even when their forebears received government handouts — cheese and powdered milk — they scrimped and saved and used it all. He still tries to live that way, charging just $9 per haircut and $10 for a flattop.
He felt strongly that President Obama would destroy this way of life, displaying a bumper sticker that said: “If you voted for Obama in ‘08 to prove you’re not a racist, vote for someone else in ‘12 to prove you’re not an idiot!” But he suspected none of the GOP candidates knew what he was talking about. “I will vote for them” against Obama, Crocker said. “But they don’t understand it like I do.”