In a nation turned blue, the South remains largely red. That’s the takeaway from the 2008 election, and the Republicans’ best hope for resurrecting their party.
John McCain, for all his political waffling and personal idiosyncrasies, still held on to the South. Except for Virginia and Florida (two states heavily infiltrated by Northerners) and North Carolina (a race so close it couldn’t be called until three days after the election), the South remained solidly in the GOP column.
From Florida’s Panhandle to Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, McCain actually garnered a higher percentage of votes than George W. Bush did in 2004.
Four border states — Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia and, as of this writing, Missouri — also went for "the Maverick." Include them, and the South provided him with 129 of his 174 electoral votes.
McCain was pretty much a drag everywhere else. Republican turnout declined 1.3 percent nationally, and the percentage of voters calling themselves Republicans fell from 37 percent in 2004 to 32 percent this year.
Much of that erosion was due to the profoundly unpopular President Bush and a lousy economy. Yet even with those favorable tailwinds, and a fatter bankroll, Barack Obama barely registered more than half the popular vote against the Republicans’ weakest candidate since Bob Dole.
"This election was in many ways a referendum on Bush. Using that measuring stick, Obama should have received 75 percent of the vote," says Craig Shirley, author the 1976 book, "Reagan Revolution."
Since politics is a pendulum that swings left and right, Republicans can be almost assured that Obama will overreach and self-destruct. Frankly, his agenda looks like Jimmy Carter’s second term — which, of course, never happened.
Cultural and social values matter in the South. If Republicans abandon those values, where are they going to take their stand? New England? With the defeat of Republican Rep. Chris Shays in Connecticut, the GOP doesn’t field a single congressman north of Greenwich, Conn.
Bush’s costly global adventurism and foreign entanglements to "make the world safe for democracy" have historically been policies of the Democratic Party. McCain’s agenda is similarly bastardized. Taxing health plans? "Reaching across the aisle" to give amnesty to illegal aliens? McCain-Feingold? Joining Obama in voting for a $700 billion bailout larded with pork? This is all very bad stuff.
Fact is, the South isn’t the only bastion of conservatism. Ronald Reagan captured large swaths of the West, as well as key Midwestern states. Those votes are still there for the taking.
A recent Rasmussen poll showed that 59 percent of Americans agreed with Reagan’s assertion that government is the problem, not the solution. An overwhelming majority favors less government and lower taxes.
Obama successfully tapped into the taxes part of the equation by concocting cuts for the "middle-class." But does anyone really believe his numbers will add up? Check back in four years.
The biggest mistake Republicans could make would be to throw out the social and fiscal conservatism that brought victory in the 1980s. Imperialistic foreign policy, open borders and deficit spending are not a winning ticket.
Whether it’s faith, rural sensibilities or simply commonsense, the South remains the bulwark for Republicanism insofar as the party espouses true conservative values. While Democrats picked up 19 seats in the House, only four came from the 11 states that made up the Confederacy. Subtract Florida and Virginia, and the Democrats registered no net gain in the South.
These are significant statistics because the South is growing, and the 2010 Census may award an additional half-dozen electoral votes to the region.
Meantime, the national media fixate on political sideshows and recriminations. Recent reports quoted an unidentified McCain aide calling Sarah Palin and her family "Wasilla Hillbillies." YeeHaw! When pundits blame the Alaska governor for McCain’s loss, neocons and "moderate" party hacks are only too eager to pile on.
But Republicans who rely on the press for their guiding light will continue to wander in the desert. Remember, McCain was the media’s favored candidate in the GOP primaries, only to be kicked to the curb in the general election.
A party that sacrifices core principles and trims its conservative roots will leave its Southern base cold, and leave itself with nowhere to call home.
(Kenric Ward is a columnist and editorial writer for the Scripps Treasure Coast (Fla.) Newspapers. E-mail ken.ward(at)scripps.com)