Republican North-South Split on Taxes Previews Debt Talks

With President Barack Obama and Congress poised to clash over spending cuts and raising the $16.4 trillion federal debt limit, reaching a deal may be complicated by a North-South divide among Republicans made wider by the 2012 elections.

In the South, most congressional districts are so purely partisan there’s little incentive for bargaining. Those Republicans “don’t feel like they have to reach out for any kind of bipartisan compromise or find middle ground because they come from such conservative districts,” said David T. Canon, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The debt-ceiling debate is “going to be the next big split here, where you’re going to have moderate Republicans trying to find a solution” and “a fairly significant number of Republicans, mostly from the South, who are going to be willing to push all the way to the edge of that potential default,” Canon said.

Republicans hold 97 of the 138 congressional districts in the 11 Southern states of the old Confederacy, while Democrats hold most of the rest. Republicans have 16 of the 22 Senate seats and 10 of the 11 governorships in the South, where losing presidential nominee Mitt Romney won 74 percent of the electoral votes while taking just 23 percent elsewhere.

Northern Losses

The party solidified its Southern standing in the election even as it lost ground in other regions, including the Pacific Coast and the Northeast. The party’s candidates lost every single House race in New England, where Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire are the only Republican senators. Democrats have won eight consecutive Senate races in New York and 13 straight in New Jersey.

Votes in Congress last week highlighted the geographic fault lines.

About seven in eight Republicans from Southern districts voted Jan. 1 against a compromise to avert more than $600 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax increases, while the rest of the House Republicans were about evenly divided. The measure to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff drew overwhelming Republican support in the Senate, where members represent broader constituencies than House members.

Southern House members accounted for about half of the 67 Republican votes on Jan. 4 against the first installment of disaster relief for victims of superstorm Sandy.

Intra-party Fight

Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, had scheduled the vote under pressure from his northeastern colleagues, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who accused his own party leaders of neglecting their region. The House is scheduled to consider two more Sandy-related measures on Jan. 15.

Southern Republicans likely will oppose new regulations on firearms, while Republicans in suburban areas elsewhere may be open to some restrictions. Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, said he will deliver next week recommendations for stemming gun violence following the shooting of 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last month.

The North-South divide could blur in the future, particularly in presidential and Senate elections.

Hispanic growth in Florida helped Obama win its 29 electoral votes. North Carolina’s urbanization has transformed it from a Republican-leaning state to a competitive one. Texas, now a Republican bastion, stands to become more competitive as the Latino population rises. And Georgia, where Obama lost by 8 points, was more competitive than Michigan, Romney’s birth state, where the Republican lost by 9 points.

Morton Blackwell, a member of the Republican National Committee from Virginia, sees other shifts that may help the party make gains in other regions of the country.

“There are strong conservatives in every state,” Blackwell said.

“Just last year, we saw Indiana and Michigan adopt right-to-work laws, so there is solid conservative strength throughout the Midwest and conservatives can win statewide elections there,” he said. “The pendulum swings back and forth.”

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