In the last 28 months, the Republican Party has lost the White House and lost control of both chambers of Congress.
With the shock of those setbacks still sinking in, the party has been rocked and riven by former President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede, a pro-Trump riot in the U.S. Capitol, and an impeachment effort that even some Republicans backed.
As happens at such moments, some editorialists and on-air voices are saying the Grand Old Party is over. But premature obituaries of this kind are neither new nor convincing. The latest batch of them might just set the stage for the next remarkable Republican comeback.
Where will the party turn in its hour of crisis? If the past is any guide, it will turn in two directions: To the right, and to the South. These have been the wellsprings of strength and support that have brought the party back from the brink in recent decades.
That was the strategy that led to Richard Nixon’s elections as president in 1968 and 1972, and it was still working for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Solidifying the South and energizing conservatives were also crucial factors in the Republican tsunami of 1994, when the GOP surged to majorities in Congress and in statehouses. That hamstrung the remainder of Bill Clinton’s presidency and presaged the election of Republican George W. Bush in 2000.
It was a lesson not lost on Trump. While not even a Republican until late in life, he started his primary campaign billboarding the party’s most conservative positions on taxes, trade, immigration and abortion. And the first of his rallies to draw a crowd in the tens of thousands was in a football stadium in Mobile, Ala., two months after he declared his candidacy in the summer of 2015.
Whether the next standard-bearer for the GOP is Trump himself or someone else, there is little doubt the playbook will be the same.
Low points, then turnarounds
Before the present moment, Republican electoral fortunes had hit three particularly low points in the previous 70 years. The first came after the Lyndon Johnson landslide election in 1964, the second after the Watergate scandals a decade later and the third after the election of Bill Clinton with a big Democratic majority in the Senate in 1992.
Perhaps the most discouraging of these for the GOP was Johnson’s tidal wave, which carried in the biggest majorities Democrats in Congress had enjoyed since the heyday of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Johnson, a Texas Democrat, had assumed the presidency a year earlier when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Despite his own Southern roots, he pushed through the landmark Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation in public facilities. But as he signed it, he was reported to have said he feared his party had “lost the South for a generation.”
The first sign that he was right came that fall. Even as Johnson got 60% of the nationwide popular vote and carried 44 states, he lost five in the “Deep South” (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina). This bloc voted for Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, an Arizonan who had opposed the Civil Rights Act as an affront to state’s rights.
When this fistful of five states defected, it was a stunner. They had resisted Republicans even when the Democrats nominated Northern liberals like Illinois’ Adlai Stevenson (1952 and 1956) and Kennedy (1960), who was not only a New Englander but a Catholic.
Before that they had stuck with the Democrats even in the party’s worst drubbings of the century, although some had left the fold for third-party attractions such as segregationist Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who left the Democrats for a time to form the States Rights Party in 1948.
This shift in Southern sensibilities in the 1960s was linked to the national Democrats’ embrace of the civil rights movement, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and then to the creation of Medicare and other “Great Society” programs in 1965.
To be sure, there were other factors buoying what had been the “party of Lincoln” in Dixie, including the arrival of affluent Northern retirees and of industries lured by the lower cost of (non-unionized) labor.
But the salient issue was race. As Republican strategist Kevin Phillips expressed it to New York Times reporter James Boyd in 1970: “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.”
“The Southern Strategy”
Working for Republican candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, Phillips popularized the label of “Southern Strategy” for the overall approach his candidate took to the electorate that year. But Nixon tapped into Republican local organizations already growing in the South, largely by emphasizing states’ rights and the “law and order” theme. The latter gained popular traction nationwide as riots ravaged many major cities in 1967 and 1968 (especially after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that year).
That strategy proved crucial for Nixon. He carried South Carolina (where Thurmond, still a senator, was now a Republican and a Nixon man), plus Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. It turned out to be enough, even though five other Southern states’ electoral votes went to George Wallace, the segregationist former governor of Alabama who ran that year as the nominee of the American Independent Party.
Nixon worried about another Wallace bid costing him Southern states again in 1972, and he worked hard to maneuver Wallace in another direction. In the end, Wallace sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1972 (a campaign cut short when he was paralyzed by an assassination attempt). Nixon swept the South that year en route to winning 49 states overall.
The wilderness after Watergate
After such a resounding reelection, it seemed unimaginable that Nixon or his party could be in political trouble so soon after his second inauguration. But a 1972 burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (in the Watergate hotel), was traced to Nixon’s campaign. His efforts to cover up that connection were then exposed, leading to impeachment proceedings. When audio tapes of his conspiratorial meetings with aides were made public, he resigned and was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.
Republicans once again found themselves in the wilderness. Midterm elections arrived right after the resignation and pardon. Republicans nationwide paid the price, with the party losing seats in Congress it had held for generations.
Two years later, Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president, largely because as a former governor of Georgia he could call his home region back to its Democratic roots. Indeed, in 1976 he carried every Southern state but Virginia.
But even in that year, the Southern tilt of the new GOP was apparent in the primaries. Ford, seeking a term of his own, was cruising through the early party events up until North Carolina in late March. There he was ambushed by the conservative, onetime Goldwater spokesman who was challenging him for the party’s nomination, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan also won primaries in Texas, Georgia and Arkansas and virtually tied Ford in Tennessee and Kentucky. Combined with his wins in the West, these late breakthroughs almost brought him the nomination.
Another Southern-bred comeback
Four years later, with Carter vulnerable, Reagan and the South were both front and center. Reagan backers had created a new early primary in South Carolina, which he won easily. That sent a signal across the region, and the following week Reagan won Florida, Georgia and Alabama. He went on to win every Southern primary, including the knockout in Texas over that state’s favorite son George H.W. Bush, whom he later made his running mate.
How had a son of the Midwest by way of California (and Hollywood) come to be such a champion of the South? One answer was suggested by the eager support of Thurmond, still a powerbroker in his eighth decade. Another answer was manifest in the campaign’s first big rally after Reagan was nominated in the summer of 1980.
That kickoff for the fall campaign was held in Neshoba County, Miss., near the site of a notorious 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. Reagan’s campaign chose that location for him to proclaim his belief in states’ rights, his opposition to the “welfare state” and his devotion to “law and order.”
In that November, Reagan beat Carter everywhere in the old Confederacy but in the incumbent president’s own home state. In 1984, storming to reelection, Reagan swept the region with landslide margins.
The Southern Strategy kept rolling in 1988, when the GOP nominated Bush, Reagan’s loyal vice president, who had forsaken his New England roots to go all-in as a transplanted Texan. He was Southern enough, and conservative enough, to win every state the Census Bureau defines as Southern with the lone exception of West Virginia.
Clinton-Gore could compete
Bush’s term in office featured a short and highly successful war in the Persian Gulf and a budget deal with Democrats that would eventually reduce the federal deficit and slow the growth of the national debt. But a brief recession cost him in the polls, and a rebellion broke out on the party’s right.
Bush got a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan, a media personality who served as an adviser to Reagan and Nixon. Buchanan assailed the budget deal because it raised taxes. He conjured the spirits of Reagan and Goldwater and questioned Bush’s conservative bona fides. So did Ross Perot, an eccentric billionaire Texan who was running as a self-financing independent.
On top of that, Bush was confronted with the Democrats’ choice of an all-Southern ticket in Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Al Gore of Tennessee. The young Democrats who could talk Southern carried their home states plus Louisiana and Georgia and all the Civil War “border states” (Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland). The region was back in play.
Clinton and Gore threw a chill into Republicans. What if Clinton served two terms and gave way to a still-vital, still-Southern Gore who could serve two more? That would be a roadblock in the White House equivalent to Roosevelt’s four wins.
If that seems far-fetched now, consider that Clinton did win the popular vote twice and Gore won it in 2000 (losing by the barest of margins in the Electoral College). They initiated the current stretch in which Democrats have won the popular vote seven times in the last eight presidential elections.
Democrats in 1992 were also able to hold on to seven of the nine Senate seats they had won in Southern and border states in 1986. That kept their overall Democratic majority at 57-43, providing the muscle to take on the health care reform issue in 1993.
For a time, the momentum behind that issue seemed so strong that more than a few Republicans were looking for ways to be part of it. They did not want to be left out of what appeared then to be the national direction. It was not the last time Republicans contemplated a move toward the center in the wake of a daunting defeat.
GOP goes South again
But as it turned out, the road to redemption would be quite different. Republicans decided to close ranks and oppose the Clinton health proposals, and they succeeded in blocking them.
In the midterm campaign of 1994, Republicans in the House united behind their party’s No. 2 leader, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and his “Contract with America” — a list of popular, often populist ideas such as a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.
Democrats in the House were also dealing with new maps dividing the electoral districts within each state. The creation of more minority-friendly districts in the metropolitan areas had siphoned off likely Democratic voters from adjacent suburban and exurban districts. That weakened Democratic incumbents in the latter districts, especially in the South, where the remapping was most dramatic.
All these factors combined to produce a windfall for Republicans all over the country in the midterms of 1994, but it was a watershed election in the South. For more than a century after Reconstruction, Democrats had held a majority of the governorships and of the Senate and House seats in the South. Even as the region became accustomed to voting Republican for president, this pattern had held at the statewide and congressional levels.
But in November of 1994, in a single day, the majority of Southern governorships, Senate seats and House seats shifted to the Republicans. That majority has held ever since, with more legislative seats and local offices shifting to the GOP as well. The South is now the home base of the Republican Party.
The 2020 aftermath
No wonder that in contesting the results in six swing states he lost, Trump seems to have worked hardest on Georgia. If he had won there, he still would have lost the Electoral College decisively. But as the third most populous Southern state, and the only Southern state to change its choice from 2016, it clearly held special significance.
It’s worth noting that, even without Georgia, Trump won 13 states where slavery had once been legal (including Oklahoma, which was still a territory during the Civil War, and West Virginia, which was then a part of Virginia) and these states provided nearly 70% of his Electoral College votes.
The move to the right, and the focus on the South, have been the route to renewed success for Republicans again and again.
It was there Trump began his big rally strategy nearly six years ago. It was there he would emerge as the clear front-runner for the nomination in 2016 by winning South Carolina’s primary, dominating among the staunchest conservatives in that legendary bastion of Southern independence.
So it seemed more than appropriate that South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham would be the first Republican senator summoned to confer with Trump about the party’s plans after the impeachment trial ended. And appropriate that the meeting took place at Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, where Trump has relocated his legal residence and political operation.
If Trump is to rise again, it will once again be as a born-again conservative and an adopted son of the South. And if the next Republican is not Trump, nearly all the top contenders to succeed him are from states with at least one college football team in the Southeastern Conference.
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