In many ways, Texas Gov. Rick Perry looks like a gift from central casting to a Republican presidential field still searching for its marquee attraction.
After all, Perry, who visited Southern California this week as he explores the race, is a big-state executive with a strong economic record and hard-edged fiscal and social views attractive to the party’s most energetic grassroots conservatives. “He checks so many boxes,” says Mark McKinnon, an Austin-based Republican consultant.
But one other element of Perry’s resume complicates that picture: he’s a Southerner—and specifically a Texan. As such his candidacy would compel the GOP to confront its ambiguous relationship with the South, especially since it would follow so soon after the tumultuous presidency of another Texas governor, George W. Bush.
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In recent years, the South has operated both as a blessing and a burden for the GOP. The region, defined as the 11 states of the Old Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky, has become the cornerstone of the Republican electoral coalition. Yet as the GOP has become dominant across Dixie, and more closely identified with its uncompromising brand of social and economic conservatism, it has struggled in other regions, especially during the Bush era.
Under President Obama, the GOP has revived its fortunes outside the South, both in Congress and gubernatorial races. If Perry runs, Republican voters will be forced to decide whether they believe the party can hold those gains with a nominee who, like Bush, puts an unequivocally Southern cultural and religious face on their party.
In 2009, with the help of Polidata, a political data analysis firm, I published an analysis [“Southern Exposure,” 5/23/09, p. 18] that documented how the GOP’s strong position inside the South obscured its retreat elsewhere over roughly the past 15 years.
After the 1994 Republican landslide, for example, the GOP held a majority of House seats both in and outside of the South for the first time since Reconstruction. From 1996 to 2006, Republicans slipped slightly, but still held just under half of non-Southern House seats. In Bush’s second term, though, the bottom fell out, and after the 2008 elections, Republicans controlled only about one-third of House seats outside the South. Only at the height of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal popularity in 1934 and 1936 had the GOP ever controlled a smaller share of non-Southern House seats. Similarly, after holding exactly half of the non-Southern Senate seats during the mid-1990s, the GOP by 2009 controlled just 28 percent of them, less than at any point except after the 1936 election.
Except for Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976, Republican presidential candidates have likewise won most of the Southern Electoral College and popular votes in every presidential race since 1972. But in the five presidential elections since 1992, Republican presidential candidates have won only 21 percent of the Electoral College votes outside of the South--less than the GOP has captured in any five-election sequence since its founding as the Northern party of Union in 1856. (Even Bush, while winning every Southern state, captured only about 30 percent of the non-Southern Electoral College votes in each of his two victories.)
Likewise, over the past five elections, GOP nominees have averaged only 42 percent of the presidential popular vote outside of the South—also the party’s weakest performance in any five-election sequence since its founding. In 2008, Obama beat Sen. John McCain in the popular vote outside of the South by nearly as much as Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale in 1984.
Since then the GOP has revived beyond Dixie. In 2010, it won governorships in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and recaptured 42 House and five Senate seats outside the South. With the economy still sputtering, Republican strategists see opportunities in 2012 to regain Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that backed Obama last time.
The question Perry presents is whether his nomination would make it easier for Obama to hold those states by creating cultural barriers for the GOP. Like Bush, Perry is an evangelical Christian with a pronounced Texas swagger; he’s identified with causes such as restricting abortion more unreservedly than Bush was.
As the nominee, could Perry alienate culturally moderate voters outside the South, especially white-collar suburbanites, who might otherwise abandon Obama on economic grounds? “It’s a risk,” McKinnon says. Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant Christopher Nicholas agrees: “It makes it infinitely more difficult because history has proven those candidates don’t get traction in the Northeastern suburbs.”
The immediate issue for Perry is whether doubts about his electability, or resistance to his social views, would deter GOP primary voters beyond the South, where he likely would be formidable. David Carney, Perry’s chief strategist, predicts neither concern would hurt the governor much if he runs, mostly because “the economy will dominate” the primary election, overshadowing other issues.
Even senior strategists for some other GOP contenders agree. But if Republicans nominate Perry, they unavoidably would be betting that he could establish enough of a cultural connection with voters beyond the South to harvest the economic discontent that now seems entrenched nationwide.