“Giving Way To Angrier Politics”: Republican Convention Is Sign That Republican Grip On Sun Belt Is Loosening
For more than 50 years, the Sun Belt — the band of states that extends from Florida to California — has been the philosophical heart and electoral engine of the Republican Party. It was more than just a source of votes. The Sun Belt infused the Republican Party with a frontier spirit: the optimistic, free-ranging embrace of individualism and the disdain for big government and regulation.
From Richard M. Nixon through John McCain, a span of 48 years, every Republican presidential candidate save for Gerald R. Ford and Bob Dole has claimed ties to the Sun Belt. The last Republican president, George W. Bush, made a point of fixing his political compass in Texas once he was done with Yale and Harvard Business School, complete with what many heard as a slightly exaggerated drawl, as had his father, a Connecticut Yankee turned Texas oilman.
Yet as Republicans gather here this week, they are nominating for president a governor of Massachusetts who was born in Michigan and, for vice president, a congressman from Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Sun Belt states that were once reliable parts of the Republican electoral map are turning blue or have turned blue, like California. Only Southern notches of the belt remain. And the sunny symbol of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat cutting wood, as good an image of the Sun Belt spirit as there was, has given way to the angrier politics of the Tea Party, which embraces much of the same anti-government message but with a decidedly different tone.
The Sun Belt remains an economic, political and cultural force. But the 40th Republican National Convention is a sign that the Republicans’ grip on it is loosening. The nominations of Mitt Romney and Paul D. Ryan could mark the end of an era.
“It’s really a dramatic change in the 30-some-odd years since I ran Reagan’s campaign,” said Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant. “I began with a base, even when we were 30 points down, when Reagan asked me to run his campaign. The West Coast is gone, and those are big numbers.” Stuart Spencer, another senior Reagan campaign adviser, said Reagan at once personified and defined himself as a creature of the Sun Belt. “That’s where we started, and we added from there,” he said. “But Colorado is in play now. Nevada is in play.”
How did this happen?
For one thing, the Republican who came riding in as the candidate of the Sun Belt — Gov. Rick Perry of Texas — stumbled. But there are larger forces at work that lead many analysts to think that a long-lasting shift is under way. The Sun Belt is in many ways not what it was when Barry Goldwater came on the scene. Once the very symbol of economic prosperity and untrammeled growth, it has been pummeled by the collapse of the housing market.
“There is a soaring rate of poverty in these new suburban regions,” said Lisa McGirr, a history professor at Harvard who studies the region. “I think it’s bound to have a political impact and to transform the ability of the Republican Party to appeal to suburbanites with private, individualistic solutions.”
More transformative is the demographic shift brought on by the influx of Latino voters. It is upending the political makeup of states like Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida. And it has come when the Republican Party has been identified with tough measures aimed at curbing immigration.
Many Republicans date the beginning of the decline to 1994, when Republicans in California backed a voter initiative, Proposition 187, to deny government services to immigrants in this country illegally. The law was eventually nullified by a federal court.
“Once California started alienating Latinos and once Latinos started moving in large numbers to Arizona and in Texas, that changes the whole game,” said Richard White, a professor of history at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford.
The change has been noted in places like Orange County, Calif., home to the Nixon presidential library and once a symbol of conservative political power and for many years overwhelmingly white. Today, it is filled with enclaves of Latinos and Asians — on many streets, it is hard to find an English-language sign on a store — and only about 43 percent of the voters are registered Republican.
Eventually, some say, even Texas might move to the Democratic column as more Latinos move in and vote. Even though Florida continues to vote Republican in statewide elections, indications are that the increasing presence of non-Cuban Hispanics could tilt the state leftward.
“The real question now in Florida is whether the I-4 corridor — between Daytona and Tampa — is becoming more Democratic than independent,” said Joseph Gaylord, a Republican consultant who lives there. “Texas and Florida offset California. And there’s no way a Republican can become president if you don’t win Texas and Florida.”
If the political allegiances of the Sun Belt are shifting, the changes in its political philosophy, represented by the increasing power of the Tea Party in states like this and Arizona, are slightly more nuanced. The view of government expressed by Tea Party members is not that different from what Reagan or Goldwater might have said.
But Mr. Spencer, the Reagan hand, believes that the Tea Party would never have embraced Reagan. “He was a pragmatist,” Mr. Spencer said. “Ronald Reagan raised taxes 13 times at least” in his years as governor and president.
It was Reagan whose election as president seemed to mark the coming of the political age of the Sun Belt, but also of what Kenneth M. Duberstein, the White House chief of staff for Reagan, referred to as “the lock”: the notion that the Republican Party could consider the Sun Belt in the political bank. As late as 2002, Karl Rove, the chief political adviser to George W. Bush, was arguing that California was fertile ground for Republicans.
“Reagan in many ways seemed to be the beginning of the wave, but in retrospect, it’s going to be remembered as the peak of the wave,” Mr. White said. He suggested that Mr. McCain’s defeat in 2008 might come to carry its own political symbolism.
“It’s always hard to say things based on one election, but he will probably be seen as the tail end of it,” Mr. White said.
By: Adam Nagourney, LA Bureau Chief, The New York Times, August 25, 2012
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