George Will: GOP Looks Away From South, Dixieland

Giddy since their election of a senator from Massachusetts, Republicans have visions of political sugarplums dancing in their heads. Their arithmetic of optimism begins with the fact that 48 Democratic members of the House—nine more than the current size of the Democrats' majority—hold seats from districts George W. Bush carried in 2004 and John McCain carried in 2008, and 84 Democrats are from districts that either Bush or McCain carried in those elections. Regarding the Senate, Republicans have more targets of opportunity because, until Scott Brown took office, there were six appointed senators—Democrats from Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, Colorado, and Illinois, and a Republican from Florida. In 2010, Republicans seem certain to gain seats in North Dakota and Delaware. Now suppose, as it is not delusional to do, that they also win the Colorado and Illinois seats. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter, who last year became a Democrat to avoid losing the Republican primary this year to former congressman Pat Toomey, is polling substantially behind Toomey in anticipation of the November election. And suppose Republicans win the governorship of the failed state of California, and a Senate seat there, putting that state's 55 electoral votes in play in 2012.

Now suppose Republicans hold the Florida seat by nominating and electing Marco Rubio, who at age 39 would be the nation's most prominent and articulate Hispanic elected official. This matters because 56 more counties have become "majority minority" since 2000. There are now 309 such, 10 percent of all counties. Hispanic votes surged by 4 million between 2000 and 2008. Of course, wishful thinking butters no parsnips. Still, Charlie Cook, author of The Cook Political Report, says Republicans are fielding first- or at least strong second-tier candidates in 10 Senate races, including those in Arkansas, Nevada, Indiana, and Connecticut, so they now have plausible hopes of recapturing the Senate.

The fact that it is not unreasonable to contemplate so many gains in so many regions suggests that Republicans are beginning to solve this fundamental problem: The South, far from being the firm base of a national party, has recently resembled the embattled redoubt of a regional party. This was especially so after Barack Obama's 2008 victories in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.

In 2000, George W. Bush became the first Republican to win the presidency while losing outside the South, understood as the 11 states of the Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky. He did that again in 2004, when Ohio was the only large state he won outside those 13. In both elections he lost about 70 percent of non-Southern electoral votes.

By 2008, Republicans learned the limits of their strategy of running up electoral votes in the South and Mountain West and clinching victory by flooding Ohio with resources. In 2008, Obama carried three of the eight states in the Mountain West (New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado) and won Ohio with 192,221 more votes than John Kerry got while losing it in 2004.

Almost half of House and Senate Republicans are from those 13 states, a higher proportion than ever before. Ronald Brownstein of National Journal notes that it was in 1992 that GOP fortunes in the South and the rest of the nation began to diverge. Since then, those 13 states have provided from 59 to 69 percent of all Republican electoral votes. Obama beat McCain by 14 points in the other 37 states, the third-largest margin ever, after LBJ's and FDR's victories in 1964 and 1936, respectively. McCain actually got more Southern votes than Bush did—but Obama got 2.3 million more votes than Kerry did in states McCain carried.

Republican problems outside the South are compounded by and related to the increasing proportion of minorities in the electorate. Brownstein notes that in the 1990s immigration stopped being only a regional phenomenon. Today minorities are at least 30 percent of the population in 205 House districts, almost double the number in 1990. And in 135 districts—31 percent of the 435—minorities are at least 40 percent of the population. In California and Texas, non-Hispanic whites are just 63 percent of the population.

And the future? Demography often is political destiny, and 47 percent of children under 5 are minorities. Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority. Hence the possible importance of Rubio as a leading indicator, if such he becomes. For the moment, however, Republican triumphalism remains premature. See above: parsnips.

George Will is also the author of One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation and With a Happy Eye But . . .: America and the World, 1997—2002.