The South, once solidly Democratic, is more solidly Republican than ever after the 2011 elections.
As the last state legislative races were called this week from the Nov. 8 votes in Virginia and Mississippi, the party of Abraham Lincoln now controls both chambers of every state legislature in the 11 former states of the Confederacy, with the sole exception of Arkansas. And Arkansas Republicans need to flip only a handful of seats in 2012 to make the trend unanimous.
None of this comes as welcome news for President Obama’s re-election campaign. In 2008, Mr. Obama was propelled to the White House in large part with breakthrough victories in such states as Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, but all three states now have Republican-led legislatures, with the GOP’s biggest gains in the 2010 elections.
The shift means that in swing states such as Florida, the GOP 2012 nominee will have a home-field advantage given the local balance of power.
The 2010 midterm vote was “a record-breaking year for Republicans in the state legislatures. There were a couple of benchmarks set that made it a banner year, and what the last election showed is that it hasn’t died down,” said Adam Temple, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee. “It doesn’t paint a pretty picture for Democrats in 2012.”
With the formal call on one key race late Monday, Republicans gained control of the Mississippi House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction, picking up eight seats in the Nov. 8 balloting. The party increased its majority to 64-58 when one House Democrat switched parties a few days after the election.
In Virginia, Republicans gained two seats in the state Senate, giving them a 20-20 split with Democrats. With the Republican lieutenant governor casting the tiebreaker, the result is that the GOP has effective control of the state Senate to go with its dominance of the state House of Delegates.
Even though the 2011 outcome represents a milestone of sorts for the GOP, the news isn’t grabbing national headlines. That’s probably because the Southern realignment from Democrat to Republican has been a long time in coming, said Karl Kurtz, a political analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“I think it’s the most significant thing to come out of the 2011 election, but I don’t view it as earthshaking. It’s what’s been going on in the South for a dozen years now,” said Mr. Kurtz. “The South has always been conservative. It used to be conservative Democrats would get elected, but now they’re no longer Democrats, they’re Republicans.”
The analyst cautioned against drawing broad conclusions about the 2012 presidential race from the 2011 results.
“I don’t think either the 2010 or 2011 elections predict anything about presidential politics,” said Mr. Kurtz. “They show Democrats will have a difficult time in the South, and they’ve had that for the last two years, but that doesn’t mean Obama can’t win in Virginia or North Carolina or Arkansas.”
Democrats downplayed the significance of the GOP legislative victories, saying that the Republican results fell short of expectations. In Virginia, for example, Republicans hoped to pick up at least three state Senate seats in order to gain outright control of the chamber, but had to settle for a tie.
“In Virginia, Republicans said they would sweep the state legislature and instead got a 20-20 split in the Senate. That’s less than they expected to get,” said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Melanie Roussell. “And it came down to an 86-vote margin in one Senate race.”
Robert S. McElvaine, history professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., said the Republican takeover of the Mississippi House was simply the culmination of a long-building trend.
“Going Republican for the first time since Reconstruction is sort of meaningless, since back then the Republicans were the progressives and supportive of African-Americans,” said Mr. McElvaine. “The Republican domination in this state has reached a point where the Democrats didn’t even field a candidate for lieutenant governor this year.”
Democrats pointed to the defeat of the so-called “personhood” pro-life amendment in Mississippi as an example of Southern voters rejecting Republican issues. Initiative 26, which would have defined life as beginning at conception, lost by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent, despite leading in the polls just a few weeks earlier.
“This is one of the most conservatives states in the nation, and the vote wasn’t even close. It was a thorough repudiation of Republican policies,” Ms. Roussell said.
Mississippi Republican Party Executive Director Tim Saler countered that the personhood initiative had bipartisan support. The measure was endorsed by many Democratic candidates, including gubernatorial hopeful Johnny DuPree, who lost to Republican Phil Bryant.
“Most of the Democratic candidates said they would support [the personhood amendment]. They needed to say they were for it to make people think they were more conservative than they were,” said Mr. Saler. “It’s a little bit of revisionist history for Democrats to say they were against personhood.”
He said the election’s legacy may be the end of the distinction drawn by Mississippi voters between Southern Democrats and national Democrats, one that successful Democratic candidates in states such as Kentucky and Arkansas have tried to highlight in recent votes.
“There was some sense among voters that, ‘Our Democrats are different.’ The phrase you’d hear was ‘Mississippi Democrats,’” said Mr. Saler. “I think what happened is that voters finally decided that, well, there isn’t a difference.”