Shifting Politics Reflect Changes in Regional Alignments

Posted November 3, 2008 at 3:15pm

January will bring big change to Washington, D.C., by definition. We will have a new president with a different style and different set of priorities than the current one. Same for the Cabinet (at least most of it). We will have a Congress with many more Democrats in both chambers, possibly larger numbers than Democrats have seen since the 1970s.

[IMGCAP(1)]Our politics are changing, too, and these elections, whatever the outcome today, will have a major effect on the landscape. One area is in the regional alignments of our parties. The most significant change in American politics in the 20th century was the realignment of the South — its move, starting in 1964, from a solidly Democratic, core region that kept the party in the majority from 1930 on, into first a competitive region and then into the core base of the Republican Party. While 2008 will not bring back a solidly Democratic South, the fact that presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is competitive in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida — with a real prospect of victories in more than one of the four — is a sign of big changes coming to the region.

The changes are not just about race and Obama. In Virginia, the trends have been evident for a long time and have already bifurcated the state, with the northern part pretty reliably blue and the southern half still pretty red. The changes in the north are related to demographics, urbanization and suburbanization, and the kinds of issues that drive residents in the areas ringing Washington — issues that favor Virginia Democrats over Republicans. Importantly, Northern Virginia is growing in size relative to Southern Virginia.

But the growing strength of the Democrats in the Old Dominion is also related to the way the two parties have conducted themselves. Successful governorships of Doug Wilder, Gerry Baliles and Mark Warner helped bolster the image of the Democratic Party, while the GOP in the state consciously decided to move from the kind of centrist, problem-solving politics that characterized former governors like Linwood Holton and lawmakers like Tom Davis to the kind of rigid, ideological politics that have former Gov. Jim Gilmore trailing in the Senate contest against Warner by as many as 30 points. How is this a conscious move? The GOP deliberately tilted the Senate nomination process to screw Davis and favor Gilmore to satisfy its ideological craving.

In North Carolina, the change is in part caused by a wave of retirees moving in, some eschewing Florida and others moving there from the Sunshine State because of costs, weather and traffic. Many of these oldsters are historically Democrats or are moved by economics and health policy issues that favor Democrats. Add to that factor the growing role of the new economy in the Research Triangle area, and we have two reasons North Carolina is in play in 2008 while South Carolina is not.

Florida is becoming less red and more competitive in part because of the striking changes in the state’s growing Hispanic population. Non-Cuban Hispanics now outnumber Cuban-Americans, and they tend to reflect the partisan preferences of Hispanics outside Florida, namely tilting blue; at the same time, there are slow changes occurring in the Cuban population, as the generation of those who left Cuba in 1959 and 1960 are replaced by those who were born and raised in America. Those changes combine to make the districts held by the Diaz-Balart brothers, drawn by them to their advantage, both in play. It is also a sign that for many Cuban-Americans, there are other issues that matter besides Cuba.

The changes in the South are not just related to presidential politics. Democrats are expanding their share of the House and Senate delegations from the South as well as electing many more centrist and even conservative Democrats in unlikely places. The Republicans who are left will still represent the largest single regional base for the party, but nearly all will be strongly conservative; the Democrats coming in will be much more ideologically variegated, providing a substantial increment to the Blue Dog Coalition and, in turn, complicating the party unity and coalitional efforts of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The other region showing major change is the Rocky Mountain West. Montana, Colorado and Arizona have voted Democratic for president only once since 1964; the first two are poised to do so again, and even Arizona is in play. So is Nevada, which has voted Democratic for president twice since 1964. No doubt, a part of the reason is immigration, what Oregonians long ago referred to as the “Californication” of their state. It is broader than that, of course; affluent people from both coasts moving into beautiful open spaces in these states to live better and more relaxed lives, with concerns more focused on the environment and less enamored of grazing lands or mining expansion. Another part, certainly in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, is their Hispanic voting population.

Once again, the changes are having an impact in Congress. The new Western lawmakers are very different in style from many of their predecessors; the contrast between Senators like Republicans Conrad Burns (Mont.), Larry Craig (Idaho) and Wayne Allard (Colo.) with Democrats like Jon Tester (Mont.) and, as is likely, the Udall cousins, is striking and will have a real impact on energy and environmental policies.

Of course, these changes follow others that were pronounced in 2006, with the virtual demise of the Republican House presence in New England, and what will certainly be continued erosion of GOP support in the Northeast in both chambers of Congress. This change in turn means the further reduction in numbers and influence of moderate and centrist GOPers, and a growing homogeneity in the smaller number of Republicans left in the 111th House and Senate. The changes in our politics will pose challenges to leaders in both parties and will have interesting implications for regional balances and the power structures in both parties for a long time to come.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.