Republicans Whistling Dixie to Political Graveyard

by Randy Shaw on November 17, 2006

Former Senator and arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond must be laughing from his grave this week, as his vision of a Southern -controlled political party nears fruition. After Republicans were routed everywhere but the South on Nov. 7, Florida Senator Mel Martinez was appointed head of the Republican National Committee, and Mississippi’s Senator Trent Lott was elected the party’s Senate whip. The Republican Party has pursued a racially tinged “Southern Strategy” to win presidential elections since 1968, and has responded to its 2006 failures by reasserting its claim to be the political home for white voters. But Republicans paid a steep political price for their racist immigrant-bashing this year, with Latinos voting Democratic in record numbers. The token appointment of the Cuban-American Martinez will not change this, and rising Latino voting could finally prevent racial appeals from winning Republicans’ elections outside the South.

The Democratic tidal wave that washed over most of America on November 7 missed one region of the nation: the South. While Democrats increased their net total of Southern state legislative seats by 22, only one Southern Republican incumbent Senator or Congressperson outside Florida lost their seat (Democrat Heath Shuler’s victory in North Carolina).

In response to these results, Republicans have chosen not to try to expand their geographic base, but to continue concentrating it in the South. With the once reliably red presidential states of New Hampshire and Ohio going heavily Democratic last week, and with Colorado, Virginia, and Montana quite capable of going blue in 2008, it appears that Republicans would rather be right than elect the next President.

Since the corporate media has covered up Republican racial appeals for forty years by finding other reasons for the Party’s Southern success—states rights, religious fervor, a more “traditional” people—one could hardly expect for the script to change now. That’s why Trent Lott’s return to leadership is trumpeted as showing the importance of redemption, and his negotiating skills rather than racial views have been highlighted.

Let’s be very honest here. Trent Lott stated in 2002 that he felt America would have been a better place had Strom Thurmond’s vision of a segregated society prevailed.

Strom Thurmond’s American dream was of a nation where blacks sipped from colored drinking fountains, attended separate schools, and were subject to lynching for looking the wrong way at a white woman. Thurmond broke from the Democratic Party in 1948 to run for President as a Dixiecrat because the Party’s convention platform that year barely hinted at providing racial fairness for African-Americans.

To make believe that Thurmond stood for something different, or nobler, is to deny the reality of life in the South prior to the 1960’s.

Lott is back in Senate leadership for the same reason that Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where in the 1960’s the Klan had killed three civil rights workers. It’s all about the not so subtle symbolism of telling the blue-collar whites who voted Democratic last week to remember who their real friends are.

The Republicans return to their white, Southern roots is one development that cannot be blamed on George W. Bush. Bush understood that Latino votes were necessary for a permanent Republican majority, and the President tried to defuse Latino anger over immigration policy by agreeing to the McCain-Kennedy compromise legalization plan.

But House Republicans remained too wedded to the Party’s racial purity to go along with Bush’s strategy. As a result, Latinos made Republicans pay the price for their anti-immigrant posturing by voting for Democrats in record numbers. This contributed to the Democrats electoral success in Colorado, and contributed to the defeat of leading anti-immigrant Congressmember J. D. Hayworth of Arizona.

Apparently realizing their terrible mistake, Republicans thought they could curry favor with Latinos by naming Florida Senator Mel Martinez as head of the Republican National Committee. But Martinez is Cuban, unlike the vast majority of Latinos outside Florida.

The Republicans’ misguided attempt at racial tokenism got even worse when it was learned that a white man would actually be running the RNC day to day and making its key decisions. And conservatives opposed to the Party’s welcoming of Latinos openly questioned Martinez’s competency for the position, which was seen as racially insensitive despite the fact that Martinez’ embarrassing record as Bush’s first HUD Director showed him to be the opposite of a “can do” guy.

So Republicans appear committed to an approach where they start the 2008 election with a solid white voting base in the south, and hope that surrounding world events or the personal shortcomings of Democratic candidates enables them to win congressional seats and electoral college votes in the states Bush won in 2004.

That’s a strategy that leaves little room for error, particularly when Virginia, Missouri, and Ohio could be hard to keep in the Republican presidential column.

The Republican reliance on racial appeals has had remarkable success, so its no surprise that the Party would “go back to what got us here” after losing far more heavily than expected on November 7. But the rising number of Latino voters has changed America’s racial calculus, and the Republicans could well find themselves on the wrong side of the racial divide.

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