Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Feasting on a menu of adjustment and recrimination, the Republican National Committee met in Washington last week for political sustenance following the 2006 electoral famine. On the plates of many party loyalists were fears about shifts in the distribution of GOP strength in various parts of the country and the implications of these changes on the party’s future national competitiveness. Some believe, for example, Republican weakness in the Northeast coupled with its growing strength in the South means the Republican Party might become the equivalent of political grits — a regional electoral cuisine with more limited national appeal.

Analyzing the current congressional makeup from a regional perspective reinforces this concern. Since the last time the Democrats regained the majority in the House after Republican control (1954), the two parties have literally switched positions in terms of regional strength, with the Democrats gaining significantly in the Northeast and Republicans surging in the South over the past 50 years.

These trends might actually suggest promise and peril for both parties going forward. While some Republican partisans fret about a party that speaks only with a drawl, demographic shifts also point to growth in the number of congressional seats in the South, coming largely at the expense of the increasingly Democratic Northeast. Addressing these trends in terms of candidate recruitment and party platforms will have a significant effect on which party controls future majorities in Congress.

Regional shifts in the partisan distribution of congressional seats have been dramatic. Political scientists Philip A. Klinkner of Hamilton College and Thomas F. Schaller of The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, analyze these trends in great detail in a recent symposium in the online publication, the Forum. They demonstrate that of the 120 congressional seats in the South in 1954, 110 (or 92 percent) were held by Democrats. Fast forward a half century and Democrats now only hold 57 (40 percent) of the 142 congressional seats located in Southern states today.

Looking at the numbers a little differently, in 1954 those 110 Southern districts represented 47 percent of the total number of Democrat seats in the House. In 2006, by contrast, “Southern” districts made up a little less than a quarter of the total number of Democrat seats. And as Democrats lost ground in the South, Republicans gained dramatically. Messrs. Klinkner and Schaller show that in 1954, Republicans held only 10 seats in the South (five percent of their total) and 71 in the Northeast (35 percent of their total). By 2006, the number of Southern seats skyrocketed to 85 (42 percent of the GOP total), while the number in the Northeast shrank to 25 (12 percent of the GOP total).

Messrs. Klinkner and Schaller argue that the regional makeup of Congress is now more fully aligned with recent presidential outcomes. For example, just as Democrat presidential candidates have done well recently in New England (New Hampshire flipping from Bush to Kerry in 2004 being the most contemporary example of growing Democrat strength in the region), Democrats now control 21 of the 22 House seats from the six New England states.

“It’s going to take some time to build back in the Northeast,” a former Republican congressman told me recently. “But it can be done through consciously recruiting the right candidates.” Certainly the strong showings by Republican governors like Jim Douglas in Vermont, who won with 56 percent, and M. Jodi Rell in Connecticut, who captured 63 percent, are rays of regional GOP hope.

Also, the growing strength of the GOP in the South may hold additional bonuses for Republicans. Demographic trends suggest that after the 2010 Census, states like Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas will each gain more congressional seats while the increasingly Democratic bastions of New York, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois will shrink.

But beyond this potential gain in seats through redistricting, regional shifts may have stabilized. Messrs. Klinkner and Schaller argue that as Democrats consolidated power in the Northeast and Republicans grew even stronger in the South, “it is quite possible both parties have maximized control over regional strongholds.” And both parties may try to regain some ground on their opponents’ turf. Congressional Democrats recruited the right candidates like Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Brad Ellsworth in Indiana and won in more conservative districts. Republicans — with a little less wind in their faces in the future — need to do the same in the Northeast. Governors like Mr. Douglas and Mrs. Rell may hold the recipe for a party that definitely needs a strong taste of the South — but also other flavors to expand the waistline of its numbers in Congress.

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